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Review: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

A corpse quest makes for handsome viewing.

A corpse quest makes for handsome viewing, writes Ryan Gilbey.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (15)
dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

A dishonest distributor might have sold Once Upon a Time in Anatolia as a kind of CSI: Turkey. The film has a murder, an atmospheric nocturnal hunt for a corpse and a drawn-out autopsy explicit in sound if not image. But a spot-the-difference competition between movie and TV series would not tax the most unobservant viewer. Extended takes and magisterial master shots of the Anatolian countryside scream arthouse. The dialogue is Chekhovian: David Caruso's red hair will turn grey before a character from the CSI stable says, "Darkness and cold will enfold my weary soul." The screenplay touches on geographical fidelity, good and evil, guilt. But there is space also for parochial matters, such as how to tell if your buffalo yogurt is really cheese, a question many of us will have pondered as we dilly-dally in the dairy aisle.

Over the course of one night, a group of men combs the hills of Anatolia looking for a corpse. Kenan (Firat Tanis), who is as gaunt as an El Greco Christ, has confessed to killing his friend, but his recollection of where he buried the body is flawed. All he knows is that he dug a hole near a tree. The search party includes the prosecutor Nasret (Taner Birsel), who claims to have been mistaken for Clark Gable, young doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), who wears a disappointed-looking moustache, and an assortment of police officers and soldiers.

Each time Kenan recalls a potentially helpful new detail after yet another abortive excavation, they all pile back into their cars and head off along the road that curves lazily through the land. The mounting mood of existential despair among the group will be familiar to anyone who has left a vehicle in an airport car park without first noting its precise location.

It isn't only a body that is being exhumed here. All sorts of secrets see the light of day, from the trivial (does the prosecutor have a dodgy prostate?) to the momentous and mysterious. The paternity of a child is called into doubt. Questions surround the case of a woman who predicted the time of her own death, expiring apparently at will.

Some of the hunt is more Keystone Kops in flavour than the material can easily bear, especially once the party is faced with the problem of transporting the corpse to the morgue. Nuri Bilge Ceylan is well known for tinkering with the conventional mood of a scene. In his 2006 film, Climates, a man's imploring speech to the lover he is trying to win back is interrupted repeatedly by the oblivious laughter of her colleagues. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is full of similar disruptions, some comic, others morbid, not all of them successful.

It's a handsome film, particularly during the first 90 minutes of its two and a half hours. There is a practical explanation for the search taking place at night (Nesret is leaving town early the next day) but we know the real reason is because it's so visually dramatic: the experiments with light and shadow create strange new contours in the ancient landscape. Ceylan, who is also an accomplished photographer, organises the frame with his cinematographer, Gökhan Tiryaki, in such a way that our eyes roam over each image just as they would if we stood before an old master.

For all that, the picture isn't as experimental as Corneliu Porumboiu's 2009 film Police, Adjective, which adopted a more aggressively philosophical approach to the crime genre. And Ceylan is susceptible to some hokey thinking inherited from European art cinema traditions. His weakness lies in his portrayal of women as objects of veneration beyond male understanding. He'll lavish them with transcendental close-ups all right, but he won't risk breaking the spell by giving them character names or dialogue.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism