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An existentialist masterpiece

Had the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan made only Uzak [Distant] (2002) his achievement would have been great, even in a country with such a remarkable cinematic history as Turkey. With his 2011 release Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da [Once Upon a Time in Anatolia], Ceylan has produced his masterpiece.
Critics who have praised Ceylan for alluding to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, or for what they see as an extraordinary ‘police procedural’ movie, are misreading this work. Anatolia is an existentialist inquiry into what it means to be human.
In his essay ‘Why Write?’ (1948) Jean-Paul Sartre notes that the artistic impulse is motivated by ‘the need of feeling that we are essential in relationship with the world’. That impulse works in dialectical opposition with another perception:
With each of our acts, the world reveals to us a new face. But, if we know we are directors of being, we also know that we are not its producers.
Martin Heidegger begins with ‘Dasein’, what Terry Eagleton calls ‘the irreducible “givenness” of human existence’ [… the world] has a brute, recalcitrant being of its own which resists our projects, and we exist simply as part of it’.
A murder has been committed; a group of officers, a forensic doctor and the chief of police haul a couple of miserable-looking suspects across rural Anatolia one night to identify where they buried the body. The suspects were too drunk at the time to remember. No motive for the crime is given. The officers, the doctor and their driver have their own preoccupations. One suspect may be covering for another. Human passions  – in all senses of that overused word – dwindle against the empty steppe, take shape by a field, an apple tree, a well, in the village chief’s lamplit house, only to disperse into the darkness again. Detective Naci admits that after twenty years in the force, he has no more insight into human motivation than when he began.
At 157 minutes, lacking conventional markers of plot, action, beginning, middle and end, characters that the viewer can ‘relate to’ (that nostrum of pseudo-criticism), Anatolia may not be the best way to introduce oneself to Ceylan’s work. But if you have the chance to see it, on the cinema screen, please don’t hestitate – and please post a comment.
Photo: N. B. Ceylan, movie still: . Image copyright N.B. Ceylan/nbcfilm. Reproduced for educational purposes only. No copyright claim intended.

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