Saturday, April 7, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

The first two hours of the Turkish import “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” are unlike anything I’ve seen at the movies: a rapturous, immersive, trancelike long night spent mostly in a police car, driving the unlighted roads of the Anatolian steppes with a local chief, an underling, his driver (whom everyone calls “Arab”), a forensic doctor, and an arrestee who’s confessed to killing a man and burying the body but doesn’t quite remember where (he says he’d been drinking). Every so often, when the man thinks they’ve come to the spot, they and their procession – which also includes an Ankara-based prosecutor, a police sergeant, and two comically unhurried diggers – pull over and decamp for a while.

It’s during these interludes – broken only by expansive but ultimately time-passing conversations – that the movie casts its unique, almost otherworldly spell, transporting us to a wind-blown, desolate demimonde of darkness rarely but searingly assuaged by the passing lights of a distant train or a bolt of lightning that sheds a few seconds of light on sculptural rock formations before the blackness returns. You feel you’re there with them, traversing this disorienting alien terrain at 3 A.M. eternal.

Then dawn breaks, and they do find the body, and the man’s slow-witted brother cries out that he actually killed the victim, and no one pays him any mind, and there are 45 more minutes of enigmatic conversations, and meaningful glances, and pregnant pauses. But the spell has been broken. (It’s as though the filmmakers flung open the drapes in the hotel room of a hung-over morning photophobe.) By the last half hour, I was amazed how hard I found it to pay attention to a movie that had held me in its thrall for so long. It’s the sort of movie that plot geeks will debate on IMDb message boards, but what actually happened isn’t what’s important here. What works are those fabulous first two hours.

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