Slow down and savor ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’

  • Wed Apr 4th, 2012 3:43pm
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

You know how there’s a “slow food” movement happening in dining, an approach that emphasizes sitting and eating and savoring food over the course of a long meal, as a reaction against the fast food culture in which we shovel bad food into our mouths really, really quickly?

There’s something of a “slow film” culture, too. Filmmakers all over the world are creating immersive, deliberate movies that draw you in with their very slowness. “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” is one of those movies, a murder mystery that gradually reveals an entire system of life in its corner of Turkey.

The film is directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose excellent work includes “Climates” and “Three Monkeys.” In this one, he covers a rural region of Anatolia, where a group of authorities drive around at night, suspects in tow, looking for the spot a murder victim has been buried.

This search, which takes up more than half the movie, has an almost “Fargo”-like black humor to it. The cops bicker over styles of yogurt, the exasperated police chief must deal with a call from his wife, and the suspect claims not to remember exactly where the body was left because he was drunk at the time, which means the line of cars, usually seen from a far distance under eerily beautiful night skies, must continually drive over the next hillside to try their luck at a new location.

Ceylan pauses for haunting details as he shifts to a darker tone: the way the wind blows across the high grasses as a bumbling-yet-philosophical cop wonders whether they might look back on this night and describe it as a kind of fairy tale (thus the “Once upon a time” in the title), or the camera following an apple that bounces from a tree and rolls down a hillside and into a quietly running creek.

We begin to focus on two weary characters who might have stepped from a Chekhov play, a prosecutor (Taner Birsel) and a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner). But with a movie like this, the more we get to the know them, the greater the mystery becomes, and we sense that the murder has greater resonance in their lives than we might have suspected.

I think we get the information we need to answer the questions about the murder that are left behind in the film’s enigmatic fade-out. You have to be watching the movie closely to gather that information, but by watching closely you’ll be more actively involved as a viewer, and the ending will hit harder than you’ll be expecting.

So: See some fast movies, for sure. But make time for the slow-film movement, and for this slow movie in particular.

“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (3½ stars)

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan uses a murder mystery to create an enigmatic portrait of a rural police investigation. The very slow movement of the film allows the film to become philosophical mood piece, in which clues must be watched closely to determine the solution to the mystery. In Turkish, with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter.

Showing: Northwest Film Forum.