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New York Film Festival 2011: Sleeping Sickness and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Even when the strain to invest genre material with epic-scale profundity sometimes shows, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia still manages to weave a hypnotic spell, longueurs and all.

New York Film Festival 2011: Sleeping Sickness and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

Ulrich Köhler’s Sleeping Sickness is a two-part gloss on a “white man’s burden” narrative, while Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia uses the police-procedural form to stage an extended meditation on good, evil, and the many gray areas in between. On the face of it, there isn’t much to connect both of these films, at least stylistically and thematically speaking. Both films try to make something fresh out of familiar tropes, but only one of them is more successful at doing so than the other.

Much of Sleeping Sickness’s journey into one man’s own personal heart of darkness intrigues in the moment. Köhler cleverly throws us into the world of Ebbos Velten (Pierre Bokma) and his family from the start and forces us to piece together the details of these characters and their environment. We soon discover that Ebbos is a physician in charge of a program battling the titular disease in Cameroon, and that he’s been living with his wife, Vera (Jenny Schily), in the sub-Saharan African country for a couple of years now. Absent from their living arrangements, however, is their daughter, Helen (Maria Elise Miller), who’s been going to school back in their home country of Germany; during the first half of the film, though, she’s visiting her parents in Cameroon and generally seems withdrawn from her father as much as she is close to her mother.

Somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind, Dr. Velten still holds onto at least a sliver of the original charitable spark that led him to relocate to Cameroon in the first place, but by the time Sleeping Sickness begins, his contractually obligated time is almost up and he seems clearly ready to leave and rejoin his family. (His occasionally abrasive behavior toward the natives who serve him in his fancy home suggests some of his frustration.) But though he sends his wife and daughter back home promising he will meet up with them soon, he quickly discovers that his superiors aren’t quite ready to let him go. When he makes a phone call to his wife back in Germany, Köhler tellingly cuts away from Dr. Velten’s regretful face as he hears his wife expressing eager anticipation of his return.

After a title card announcing it as such, it’s three years later, and in a daring structural move, Köhler suddenly introduces us to a new lead character, World Health Organization physician Dr. Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly), first glimpsed shaking his head in disgust at a public speaker extolling the virtues of staying out of African countries and letting markets roam free. Dr. Nzila—who, by the way, is black and African-born, but raised in France—clearly disagrees with such a passive proposition, but when he’s asked to go to Cameroon to find Dr. Velten—still in that country three years later, apparently—and evaluate his sleeping-sickness-prevention program, what he discovers helps deflate some of that idealism.

The revelations of what happened to Dr. Velten in between those elapsed three years are both effectively surprising and disappointingly unilluminating. (Spoilers ahead.) Basically, Dr. Velten has become something of a neo-colonialist monster; he has fathered a child with one of the locals and has seemingly become so far gone in his frustration at still being stuck in Cameroon that, it seems, he engineered Dr. Nzila to come to his site and declare his program unfit to continue, just so he could go back to Germany. Because Köhler decides to focus on Dr. Nzila and his outsider’s perspective on what he experiences in Cameroon in this second half, we aren’t really invited to understand Dr. Velten’s change of heart. That’s no doubt a conscious choice on the filmmaker’s part, but that means Dr. Velten degenerates into little more than a caricature of an ugly white neo-colonialist, a far less fleshed-out variation on the desperate white French silk plantation owner Isabelle Huppert played in Claire Denis’s thematically similar White Material. And when Köhler finds nothing else left to discover about Dr. Velten in his current near-mad state, Köhler takes another left turn into full-blown surrealism, finally ending on a risible note that hearkens back to a bedtime story told by Vera to her daughter much earlier in the film. The sudden attempt at poetry only serves to underline the skin-deep nature of Köhler’s economic analysis.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia isn’t exactly what one would call “original” in its storyline or even its themes either. The procedural format has been a reliable standby for movies and television for many decades, and certainly in the U.S., at least, the form has only become more ubiquitous, to the point that, by now, most of us probably know its conventions by heart. But in its world-weary melancholy and its many moments of striking visual beauty, Ceylan’s film leaves a far more potent aftertaste in its exploration of arguably shopworn material. As Roger Ebert has often said, “It’s not what a film is about, but how it is about it.”

Though the film’s title suggests we’re about to watch some kind of fairy tale, that turns out not to be quite the case. Instead, this is an extremely deliberate present-tense mystery that often takes time out of its forward progress to observe the characters’ behavior amidst this police group’s seemingly endless search for a buried corpse within the titular hilly expanse. The past, however, rarely stays too far away from some of the characters, especially Nusret (Taner Birsel), the prosecutor who offers up one key anecdote about a woman who died under mysterious circumstances years ago—circumstances that puzzle Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), the younger doctor accompanying this band of policemen on this long nocturnal trek. Cemal’s mental attempts to get to the bottom of Nusret’s puzzling story provide a colorful and telling subplot to the main action.

As I watched Once Upon a Time in Anatolia slowly unfold, I kept thinking of, oddly enough, the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. That was another genre film that broadened into something more troubling and introspective. It also explores a lot of the same thematic and emotional territory, in its own way, that Ceylan tackles here—most notably, the ways different people, of different generations, respond to the inevitability of death. Like Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men, for instance, Nusret gives off a world-weary air, as if by now he has become spiritually exasperated at dealing with death and mortality on a daily basis. That reflective air, leavened on occasion by bits of bleak, wry humor, seems to infect the whole film; it’s as if Ceylan had stretched the meditative tone of the last half hour of the Coens’ film across 157 minutes.

Even when the strain to invest genre material with epic-scale profundity sometimes shows, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia still manages to weave a hypnotic spell, longueurs and all. If nothing else, Ceylan’s spare approach to storytelling means that the film’s mysteries demand a viewer pay close attention lest he or she miss a visual clue or a telling glance that might help wrap our head around them. (This is the kind of film where the silences are just as telling as the dialogue—and even the dialogue often implies more than it directly states about a character’s state of mind.) His eye for painterly compositions helps lend an appropriately mythic air to some of the images, and there are some transcendent passages of gut-wrenching visual beauty to offset the bleakness. (A sequence involving the daughter of the mayor of a village at which this band of policemen stop for late-night R&R is particularly haunting just in the way it’s shot and lit—like a dream of innocence that will inevitably be punctured somehow.) And in the end, it’s Ceylan’s serious moral vision that lingers in the mind long after the specifics of the crime plot have drifted away from memory…punctuated, in the end, by a decision one of the main characters makes that could be read as either an act of undue vengeance or an act of mercy.

The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16.

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