Screens at CIFF: 10/11 & 10/13
World premiere: 21 May, 2011, Cannes Film Festival

To date, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has directed six features, only two of which have made any particularly huge impression in the English-speaking world - huge by the standards of Turkish imports, at any rate: Distant and Climates. They're fairly close cousins, at that: very still, slow moving character pieces examining the emotional disconnection of life in a modern city.

His latest, the Cannes Grand Prix winner Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, is therefore at least something of a surprise: the first half of its expansive two-and-a-half hour running time takes place entirely on the Anatolian steppes, tens of kilometers from the nearest urban outpost, deep at night; the characters, initially at least, are so abstract, so obviously stand-ins rather than independent agents, that for the most part, they're referred to by profession, not by name

And yet, ...Anatolia is unmistakably a Ceylan film: superficially at least, its exhausting real-time focus on a criminal investigation played out in unforgiving long takes looks a little bit like Tarr, a little bit like Tarkovsky - all the usual suspects in connection plotless, idea-driven films with inflated running times and several minute in between every cut - but the precise flavor of the clinical humanism that keeps sneaking out is absolutely typical of Ceylan's work.

It takes a while before we've quite figured it out - the opening scene is so wilfully obscure that the director even rubs our noses in it, filming the action through a distorted window - but what ends up drifting up through the clouds of quotidian chatter about family, food, work, and other assorted gossip, is that a man was killed, and of his two murderers has agreed to show the police where they buried the corpse. Unfortunately, all he really remembers is that it was by a round tree, a little way from a fountain, and given that the Anatolian countryside is lousy with trees and fountains, and given that it's pitch black out, all that the suspect (Firat Tanis) has been able to do is get the chief of police (Yilmaz Erdogan), the state prosecutor (Taner Birsel), a doctor serving as coroner (Muhammet Uzuner), and a small coterie of officers lost in the boondocks. Eventually, he remembers, or chooses to remember, where the body can be found, and shortly after sunup, the victim is recovered and sent back to the city; there, the prosecutor and doctor both have a good long chance to compare notes on the experience.

No, that does not sound like 150 minutes worth of content, and there's no shame in thinking that ...Anatolia sounds incredibly boring. The nasty truth is that it is boring, if that's the word you really feel obliged to use; boring in the same sense that the infamous driving scene is in Solaris, to name one example. We are made to suffer through the same pointless back-and-forth, dead-end meanderings as the characters in order to better understand what their minds go through over the course of a frustrating night. It would be one thing to structure the plot, as Ceylan and his co-writers Ebru Ceylan (his wife) and Ercan Kesal do, along a string of references to a peculiar anecdote in the prosecutor's life: it would serve much the same thematic purpose (which is to call into sharp relief the prosecutor and the doctor's different ideas about reality and truth) if used basically the same way in a 90-minute film. But the way that ...Anatolia plays out, the anecdote isn't just plugged in because it shades nicely into the film's deeper meanings: we get to play along with the doctor, as it were, as he spends the down time in the long evening and morning rolling the prosecutor's story around in his head and considering it. When he brings it up again later, it doesn't feel like a metaphor being struck; it feels like the culmination of a lengthy thought process that we've been privy to.

Of course, there's also the expected way in which the inflated running time allows Ceylan to indulge in tremendously precise, detailed depictions of moments throughout this process: a long scene of a farmer's daughter serving the policemen a late dinner would not have anything like the same effect if it were shorter, and would probably not have found itself in a more concise film, anyway. And I, for one, would not give up that scene for anything.

There's no way around admitting that the film is a difficult, pretentious thing: it is a Film of Ideas about morality and truth, which get discussed in elliptical ways, then in more direct ways, and then transmuted into action in an ending that sucked all the air right out of me when it came along, all the more so because it's not stressed in a big "OMG!" moment, but because it is done in the same methodical, procedural way as the rest of the film. And some of the conceptual angles are played a bit hard: it's naggingly clear that there is only one moment in the whole film in which a woman speaks, for example, and that Ceylan is using not just this fact, but the specific line and the context in which it is spoken to suggest things about the assumed cruelty and arbitrariness of masculine authority figures - if only that moment didn't work so freaking well, with its surgically precise close-up, it would be easier to find Ceylan's tactic annoying.

Still, very good films deserve a bit of work: if for no other reason than it makes the audience value them more. ...Anatolia is as much work as anything else I've seen this year, and it might well be a bit too esoteric for its own good, but the film accrues to itself such a powerful atmosphere of chaos giving way to order, through its obvious but well-played night into day structure, that I was myself helpless to resist it.