Nuri Bilge Ceylan has to be the least kinetic of working filmmakers—and not simply in the sense of static camerawork or lack of narrative momentum. Whether earlier, “character” pieces like Distant and Climates or more plot-heavy recent outings like Three Monkeys, his films feel somehow devitalized, stripped of life. To look at Ceylan's output in a certain, perhaps ungenerous, light is to see little more than a succession of striking, if overly studied, compositions tenuously strung together.
The director's framings obviously come with great care, but for at least a decade, there's always been the sense that here was a filmmaker struggling to find suitable content around which to wrap his picture-making. The addition of genre mechanics wasn't the solution in Ceylan's previous outing (Three Monkeys), and neither apparently is pairing an absurdist fable with a sliver of morality play, at least on the evidence of his latest effort, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
The film's two-and-a-half hours are devoted to observing a team of policemen, doctors, and lawyers dragging a perp through the Anatolian countryside in order to locate the dead body of his victim, as well as to the bureaucratic fallout of that process, and the sense of absurdity that remains the dominant tone feels as carefully contrived and top-down imposed as the director's trademark too-perfect compositions. As the team makes their way across the deserted landscape in a three-vehicle caravan, death and its aftermath become the stuff of very lo-fi comedy. Jokes abound in throwaway conversations about prostates and in “edgy” treatments of death, such as the cavalier manner in which the victim's cadaver is handled, but all of this feels too calculated, too on-the-nose to really register anything of the absurdity of existence (or death), especially when this dark comedy is supplemented by dour pseudo-philosophical musings on man's place in the universe.
Essentially Ceylan gives us lots of light-in-the-darkness shots of characters walking around remote locales or riding in their triumvirate of vehicles as they illuminate the way through nocturnal mountain roads. But eventually day breaks, the body is located, and the film's attention turns to both the need to document every step of post-mortem procedure and a moral dilemma on the part of the doctor performing the autopsy. The former manifests itself in a succession of isn't-this-bureaucracy-absurd antics, while the latter involves the doctor considering his responsibility to the deceased's family. This last element, while still feeling hopelessly contrived, at least stirs a measure of human sympathy missing from the remainder of Ceylan's cynical exercise by training in on the anguished faces of the dead man's wife and son, shots far more purposeful than any of the director's overly studied compositions. But for all the filmmaker's increased ambition, this is one project that plays not as a coherent vision of the absurdity of the world, nor a ground-level accumulation of pointed details, but instead a static, faux moral reckoning dictated from on high.