“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” the exquisite sixth feature by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is a police procedural as existential inquiry, set in a remote dreamscape of mystery and foreboding.
In the search for a murder victim’s body, a caravan of cars makes its fitful way over the rolling Turkish steppes, carrying men of law and science and the confessed killer. The journey begins in darkness and moves into the clear light of day, by which point many things are revealed and nothing is as it seems.
The particulars of the crime are not Ceylan’s chief concern. From outside the smeared window of a rural service station, he provides a brief glimpse of the parties involved, just before the murder. From there the film (whose screenplay is by the director, Ercan Kesal and Ebru Ceylan) becomes a road trip of official pursuit and private anxiety.
A mobile hierarchy of men, defined by their professions and their mission, is adrift in a realm of free-floating chaos. As one of the junior cops keeps reminding his superiors, the quest has taken them well outside municipal boundaries.
The searchers are at the mercy of the suspect, Kenan (Firat Tanis, heart-wrenching), who apparently was drunk when he buried the body and can offer only the vaguest directions. The excitable police captain, Naci (a terrific performance by Yilmaz Erdogan), struggles to impress the vain prosecutor (Taner Birsel) and calm his wife over the phone, and is a constant irritation to the driver everyone calls the Arab (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan).
Given the work at hand and the eeriness of the setting, the men’s enervated joking shifts into dialogues on mortality, first between the Arab and the sad-eyed doctor (Muhammet Uzuner), an increasingly pivotal observer. Lighthearted banter resumes during a stop at a village, but such matters as local honey and politics are eclipsed by the angelic presence of the mayor’s daughter.
Cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki captures her profound effect on the visiting men in a candlelit sequence worthy of an Old Master. Throughout, his widescreen compositions are gorgeous, plaintive and haunting, and the symphonic complexity of each actor’s performance requires no musical nudge.
Having chosen a title that evokes both bedtime stories and Sergio Leone, Ceylan investigates the wild frontier where the living and dead cross into each other’s worlds. To varying degrees, it’s the place we all inhabit, and where we tell our stories, whether rambling or precise — forensic reports, confessions, lies that can be comforting or heroic and may never escape the cover of night.