Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)
Question – When is a crime drama not a crime drama? Answer – When its made by Turkish filmmaker and photographer, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. For his sixth full length feature, Ceylan takes on the police procedural, but his version is sure to be unlike any you will have seen before.
In the dead of night somewhere in the Anatolian steppes, a convoy of cars goes in search of a dead body, buried somewhere in the Turkish countryside. The cars contain the two murder suspects, the police chief, his officers, the town prosecutor, the town doctor, soldiers and two local men whose job it will be to dig up the body, if and when it is found. As the suspects were drunk when they committed the murder, their memory of where they buried the body is pretty sketchy. All they know for certain is that they left it near a tree and a fountain. What we see as they drive through the night, stopping here and there, is that the Turkish countryside is full of trees and fountains.
This is the basic backdrop which Ceylan sets up for his talkative protagonists, all of whom are male. And as they drive, they talk. Subjects range from good quality buffalo cheese, the symptoms of prostate problems, small-town politics, life, death and supernatural occurrences. It could also be a study of male middle-aged ennui; the police chief in particular seems to have had enough of work, as well as home life. Dread thoughts seem to dog them all, for different reasons.
Ceylan’s filmic sensibility is akin to that of the “old masters” of European art cinema, such as Andrei Tarkovsky. The pace is slow, the characters are given time to talk, smoke, then talk some more. In one lovely sequence, while the doctor and the prosecutor talk in the background, the camera tracks an apple as it is dislodged from a tree, rolls down the side of a hill, lands in a stream, gets carried along for a time by the water and then finally stops. Whatever about the slight details of the film’s plot, the images are never short of ravishing. Ceylan also takes time to say something about the politics of town versus village life in rural Turkey. As the party stops off to eat in a nearby village, the local government official uses the opportunity to push for better facilities, such as a morgue, while entertaining the party with his best food. It’s also clear that the town officials, while polite, see him as slightly pitiful and inferior to themselves.
Obviously this film won’t be to everyone’s taste. There is a quality to the storytelling which renders it more like a fable, made clear especially in the ongoing conversation between the doctor and the prosecutor. Though the dead body is located and brought back to town for an autopsy, there is no real resolution to the story in the conventional sense. This is a closely observed character study, and it is the relationships of the men, their lives and duties that Ceylan focuses on. He tests his audience’s patience too, not just with the unconventional narrative, but with a running time which nears the 3 hour mark. I would be hard pressed to recommend this to anyone, other than fans of this very particular kind of cinema.
Michael (Marcus Schleinzer, 2011)
Schleinzer was Michael Haneke’s casting director for many years, and his problematic debut film quite patently owes a huge debt to his mentor’s chilly style. Michael (Michael Fuith) is a paedophile who keeps Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) a ten-year old boy, captive in his basement. Schleinzer presents Michael as introverted and quiet; fastidious in keeping his home clean and a polite, if non-communicative employee of an insurance firm. Many scenes show Michael blankly going about his daily chores; shopping, cooking, washing-up, and visiting Wolfgang’s room at night, where we assume he abuses him. Only one scene intimates that this is the case, but as with the film in general, everything is hinted at, rather than made explicit. One might say Schleinzer is brave in tackling such a difficult subject, and he may well be, but part of the problem with his film is that he doesn’t seem to want to confront the reasons for the behaviour he is depicting on-screen.
Michael’s visual template is similar to that of earlier Haneke films like Benny’s Video or Code Unknown. The settings are pedestrian, even drab – much like the main character himself – who is portrayed as being quite pathetic overall. Though the film stops short of making us sympathetic towards Michael, as it regularly reminds us of the horror of the situation which he has brought about. As a filmmaker, Haneke, in contrast, does at least attempt to provide some kind of context for his subjects, and if he doesn’t exactly provide answers, his films prod you into asking questions around his characters’ motivations. Schleinzer’s film is less successful in this regard. It only left me asking, is it enough to simply present images and situations and to then expect the audience to guess what the filmmaker’s motivation might be? Isn’t there some responsibility or even duty on the director’s part to make some kind of commentary, especially with subject matter as sensitive as this? Otherwise, the only question one can ask is: what is the point of this film?
Both films were showing as part of the 10th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.