In the early pages of Geoff Dyer’s Zona, the author’s attempt to unpack the mysteries of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker, author Geoff Dyer makes humorous reference to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2002 film, Distant (Uzak).
Ceylan’s film tells the story of Mahmut, a photographer in Istanbul, and his unemployed cousin Yusuf, who comes to stay with Mahmut. In one sequence, the two men watch a justly famous, wordless sequence from Stalker, a tribute from the Turkish Ceylan to the revered Russian poet of contemplative cinema.
It’s a cinema that Ceylan himself has advanced with Distant and his two subsequent films, Climates and Three Monkeys. The films haven’t exactly burned up the box office in North America. Distant grossed $96,293, Climates $119,958, and Three Monkeys $41,393. Turkish art house films in the United States are a tough business case, apparently, even when the films arrive on these shores adorned with international awards from major film festivals.
If Ceylan could name his film festival of choice, surely it would be Cannes. Not only the world’s most revered film festival, Cannes has heaped praise upon Ceylan’s oeuvre, giving Distant its Jury Prize and having both leads share the Best Actor award at that year’s featival; awarding Climates its FIPRESCI critics prize; and giving Ceylan its Best Director award for Three Monkeys. Last year’s Cannes festival gave its Jury Prize again to Ceylan, for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. At this year’s festival, Ceylan received the Directors’ Fortnight Carrosse d’Or prize.
Dyer cites Distant as an example of “films where bits of other films are seen, glimpsed or watched, either at a drive-in, on TV or in the cinema,” referencing Distant‘s use of a Stalker scene that features, in Dyer’s words, “three men on a trolley as they sit there and the blurry landscape clangs past”:
This sequence in Stalker is used to brilliant effect in Uzak (Distant, 2002) by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. [Mahmut and Yusuf] may be from the same village but they’re worlds apart, and Mahmut is not about to compromise his high aesthetic standards just because a dull-witted cousin has come to stay. So when we see them at home, feet up, watching TV, it’s not Top Gear or Turkey’s Got Talent they’re watching; it’s Stalker, the trolley sequence. The two of them are slumped and stretched out in their chairs, in a torpor of concentration and boredom. Mahmut is eating nuts, pistachios presumably. Cousin Yusuf has nodded off. One can hardly blame him; even the most boring night in the village cannot compare with the depths of tedium being plumbed here.
That’s funny. Offensive to Stalker fans? No. Dyer is, of course, a huge fan of Stalker, as am I. He’s paying a compliment to Tarkovsky’s film, to the Ceylan film that makes use of it and to the concentration required by viewers to enjoy either film, or both.
Dyer concludes his description of this strange, shifting passage from Distant with this:
If you wanted a definition of deadpan you could do a lot worse than choose this sequence to illustrate your point. In fact, thinking about it, this sequence is probably the most deadpan I have ever seen in a film. It’s so deadpan that you have to be a real cinephile to find it funny, and even then you don’t actually laugh out loud. You just sit there on the sofa with your feet up, munching pistachios, watching, snickering.
Dyer’s passage came to mind as I watched Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. The film opened at Landmark’s E St. theater in Washington, D.C., in mid-May and was cut to two showtimes a day during its second week. Its total North American box-office take, as of the May 11–13, 2012, weekend, was just $118,194, with the film having never played on more than 6 screens at a time (usually just one screen per week).
A dark film—literally, the film is shot and takes place largely in the dark of night, with car headlights being its only source of illumination in several scenes—with several discussions about mortality and ethics, Anatolia, like Distant, includes several moments of humor, deadpan or otherwise, beginning with a discussion about yogurt between detectives who are trying to locate a crime scene. As the men argue about all things dairy, Ceylan slowly zooms in on the pained face of a confessed murderer in the back seat. The tedium of the surrounding conversation generates sympathy for the killer.
But the film’s main story is deadly serious. As the cops search for a body of a murder victim, one says they’re “riding on the road to hell,” where facts and evidence are only part of the equation. Anatolia has been compared to U.S. police procedurals such as CSI, but it’s less interested in solving a crime than it is in what motivates the human heart to acts of cruelty—and kindness. To get to the bottom of what Anatolia is exploring, you “need to be less a prosecutor and more an astrologer,” as one character says.
“Why did God pick us?” wonders the wife of the dead man, in one of the film’s allusions to faith in the face of trials. (During an earlier shot of a windswept landscape, I couldn’t help but think of John 3:8).
“There’s a reason for everything,” says another character. “Everyone suffers for what they do, but kids suffer for the sins of adults.” It’s a truth—a cruel truth—that comes toward the end of a long discourse between the doctor and prosecutor about a woman’s death, likely by suicide. The movie suggests that rationality and science can be cold and cruel in the face of human suffering. What are we to do with difficult facts? Is it compassionate to tell less than one knows? How much ugliness can the human soul tolerate? How does our reaction to wickedness alleviate, or compound that wickedness?
“They shouldn’t be treated like humans!” shouts one angry investigator after discovering that a murder victim had his limbs bound before death. “They should be tied up like him!” But the man stands alone in his reaction. Others struggle with what they’re learning about the crime, and with the toll a lifetime of thinking about the mechanics of death has taken on them.
In a film with striking widescreen imagery that bests the most arresting shots in Distant (which was photographed by Ceylan himself; his subsequent films, including Anatolia, have been shot by Gokhan Tiryaki), Ceylan takes a particular interest in the human body: those male figures crowded into a small car; the shimmering, lit face of a beautiful young woman; an exposed ear that leads to a buried corpse; a naked body on an autopsy table; the profile of a doctor’s face as he makes a pivotal decision.
Ceylan’s triumphant film shows that light can break through the darkest night, and it holds out the possibility that discretion in disseminating information is sometimes more important than the information itself, especially for the youngest among us.
In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, truth is always hiding, just below the surface.