When a movie has real mojo, it’s a magical blend of story, atmosphere, mood, and character. It’s a journey, if not of the body, then of the mind. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is one of those mojo movies.
While American movies are too preoccupied with blowing stuff up but good these days, this quiet yet engrossing police procedural from Turkey is a tour de force of story and character; it’s a young foreign relative of the gritty American dramas of the ‘70s.
The title evokes images of an idyllic, dreamy fairy tale, perhaps set in scenic Cappadocia, an area of Turkey famous for its fairy chimneys and rock structures. But that has nothing to do with the reality of the situation at hand; the movie opens with a police caravan scouring the countryside, looking for a dead body.
They’re relying on a murderer named Kenan (Firat Tanis) and his simpleton accomplice to lead them to the spot where they buried the victim, but they’re forced to depend on his foggy, alcohol-addled memory as he vaguely recalls the whereabouts of the burial.
A police officer comments – with a tinge of sarcasm – that the nighttime mission running them ragged would be retold at some point like a fairy tale, “Once upon a time...”
Alas, there’s nothing whimsical about their activities. It’s a dark and stormy night, to be sure, and it’s also a grim mission, but this night is populated with a great collection of interesting characters. They are people typically unsung and unnoticed outside this bleak fairy tale.
Roaming from place to place in the darkness, the lead investigators pass the time by discussing all manner of topics while they drive to their next destination. Kenan sits in silence, wedged between officers ruminating on the finer points of yoghurt and buffalo yoghurt. They also question the health of the lead prosecutor’s prostate in light of his need for frequent stops to take a pee. There’s also the humorous banter of how the lead prosecutor and the murder victim both bear a striking resemblance to Hollywood legend Clark Gable.
During the course of the night and into the next day, the characters of skeptical Dr. Cernal (Muhammet Uzuner), anxious Commissioner Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), and that burdened, handsome lead prosecutor, named Nusret (Taner Birsel), are revealed in a spectacularly natural fashion. Yes. Spectacularly natural.
It’s easy to think their chit-chat, reactions, and mannerisms are an honest reflection of reality. They each have their own domestic concerns, family matters, and back stories. Given the procedural aspects of the case, this is to a degree a Turkish Zodiac, only much more involving.
Even the doctor conducting the autopsy has reason to grouse about his station in life. He’s stuck with old school medical equipment while a newer facility has spent a lot of money on the latest gear - but, adding insult to injury, they’ve put that technology in the hands of an imbecile running the new operation. The humor in his complaints is grounded; he’s not doing a Chevy Chase Fletch comedy routine. He’s displeased and some of the humor comes in the awkward timing of his griping – amid gruesome sounds of dissection – and the sense that his situation so very honestly and truly bothers him.
Clocking in at 157 minutes, it’s surprising how smoothly the movie plays out. It is not an action movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a highly watchable drama that keeps eyeballs glued to the screen thanks to an appealing cast working with interesting themes and tensions within the culture (at one point the question is asked, “When did your village turn out any real men?”), great dialogue, and characters who are simply trying to parse out their daily lives while working through the weeds of a brutal crime.
When they finally find their morbid buried treasure it’s early morning. The body is unceremoniously placed in a car trunk and, with a dash of humor akin to David Lynch, some fresh melons found at the scene of the burial are thrown in the boot as well. After all, the lives of the officers in this investigation go on, so why not? It’s an action of pure, unwavering pragmatism.
Ultimately, though, that’s a key part of the story. The murder victim left behind a family that desperately needed him, but their lives will have to continue without him. It’s not an element that’s paraded about and used as a tool of emotional manipulation, that would be too Hollywood.
When the murderer is finally brought back to town, with his victim’s body in the boot of the police car, a wave of public outrage is unleashed. Even then, it’s a situation that could’ve been avoided had simple protocol been followed. The public rancor in turn creates resurgent tensions within the core investigation.
After that, it’s Dr. Cernal’s distracted presence at the autopsy that revisits the theme of day-to-day existence. He stares out the window while the post-mortem examination is conducted amid gripes about resources and facilities. The final frames reveal the source of Cernal’s preoccupation and silently brings back to the fore how some lives will never be the same again.