Where is the corpse? Who was the man? Why did this woman die? How did she die? These questions are all raised and answered in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once upon a Time in Anatolia, but they are constantly displaced during the running of the movie by other, more abstract riddles. Why is this film noir so preoccupied with light? Why is it so busy making squalor look beautiful? Is beauty a problem or a dangerous solution? Is it the film’s problem or its subject?
We see a lighted room, three men eating. There is thunder in the air, a dog barks. One of the men steps outside to see what’s happening, and we gather from the heaps of tyres leaning against the walls that the place is a garage. The lighted room becomes a kind of panel in the midst of darkness, an ancient painting of rough domesticity in the middle of nowhere, or in this case Anatolia, which is treated as much the same thing. Later in the movie the setting becomes the kind of desert which dominates André Cayatte’s An Eye for an Eye, or where the bodies are buried in Martin Scorsese’s Casino. And there is another domestic location, a private house this time, where the movie’s travellers get some food and spend a piece of the night. An old man lives there, and a young girl, who provokes most of the speculation about beauty and danger. Again, the building is an outpost against the dark. Seen from outside, light leaks out under the door, round the sides of the curtains. But not ordinary light from rural Turkey, more like the light of some unfollowed or wasted annunciation.
These associations with paintings and other movies are invited by the look of Once upon a Time in Anatolia, by the title (think of Sergio Leone), and by the fact that the plot is so slow-moving – the mind has to occupy itself somehow. One more image will stand in for still more. The screen shows a road winding among bare hills, the time is almost night or almost morning, there is enough light to make out the contours of the landscape but not much else. Brilliant beams flare at the top of the screen, three pairs in a row. They resolve themselves, as they proceed towards us, into the headlights of two cars and a jeep. The vehicles stop at a bend in the road. Men get out. One of them, handcuffed, is asked whether this is the spot. He seems uncertain, doesn’t answer. There is a bit of waiting around, a lot of shuffling of feet. The men get back into their cars, the parade continues. This is repeated, with light variations, I think three times.
We get the plot point. They are looking for a body, the man being asked about its whereabouts is the killer. But why do we need to see them doing the same thing again and again, in vain? What about narrative pace and variation in a film, what about ellipsis? Well, for one thing, the picture is so striking, the procession of these beams across the emptiness so tantalising, that you’re happy to let the story go and just watch, but why is that? Because the lights and the desert also tell a story, but an ambiguous one. The lights permit the search at night, but they don’t find anything. They are not defeated by the desert but they don’t defeat it either. And indeed the body is not found until much later, in daylight. The killer, it seems, really didn’t remember where he had buried it, he wasn’t just pretending.