Anyone who has held a job that required them to work late into the night will be able to identify with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which follows a team trying to find a body buried somewhere in the Turkish countryside in the dead of night. Despite its dramatic premise, the movie isn’t sensational; it’s less about the completion of the job and more about the ways people gravitate towards and away from each other during the hours between dusk and dawn, which, when you’re working, can seem to last longer than daytime hours.
The movie has a workmanlike quality to it; the men display an informality with the macabre nature of their assignment, talking about inconsequential matters while the suspect stews in guilt and anxiety. There’s even a funny sequence that seems out of place with the dry, serious tone of the rest of the movie, when the team tries to get the body into a car without the aid of a body bag, which they’ve forgotten. This would seem like callousness except that director Nuri Bilge Ceylan instills in us such empathy for all the characters that we understand that this type of cavalier behavior is a way of buffering themselves from the dark nature of their jobs.
This is really a movie about late-night work and the things you talk about when you have to pass the time. No one looks all that tired, but there are traces of permanent rings under many of the men’s eyes. No one’s in a rush to find the body, everybody moves deliberately, and the shift is long enough, no need to use up energy needlessly. Suits look a little different when they’ve been worn all day, more lived in. They lose their own personalities and become extensions of the people wearing them. During a long night, people open up more, they may begin the evening with small talk, but at some point, they’ll fill the silence with something very revealing. It’s this sense of vulnerability that gives Once Upon a Time in Anatolia its tremendous affinity with its characters. The plot revelations aren’t shocking as traditional twists are; they’re deeply sad, giving further detail to the lives on display. They are simply more late-night disclosures.
The team visits a man in the middle of the night and he provides them with rest and food. One of the suspects in custody asks for a Coke but is swiftly rebuked by Naci. The host (Ercan Kesal) is gregarious, sharing with the men his home and kitchen, discussing in detail the joys of lamb meat. Suddenly, the lights go out and the host’s daughter (Cansu Demirci) comes around with a lantern to allow the men to finish the meal. This sequence, which is the exact midpoint of the film, is dreamlike and seems to be underlining the proposal Ceylan makes in this slow and affecting movie. For a brief minute these people are brought together by the goodness and generosity of others. Yes, some of them are in handcuffs but they are treated as fairly as the rest. Yes, others have made terrible mistakes in their personal lives but for one moment they are reminded of the warm power of decency. One of the things that the host’s daughter brings around for the men is a Coke for the suspect.