Wednesday, April 4, 2012

94% Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Film critic Molly Haskell famously described 'The Godfather' as "grandly mournful," a beautifully apt description. 'Once Upon a Time in Anatolia' is just as mournful but without the grandeur -- and without a story. It beats me why 'Anatolia' took second prize at Cannes last year. But 2011 was a tough year in general for Cannes. Top prize went to "The Tree of Life," which in my view was run-of-the-mill Buddhism tarted up with kaleidoscopic visuals. In my review of 'Tree,' I described it as a bloated over-statement. I'd describe 'Anatolia' as a bloated non-statement. If it can be imagined, 'Anatolia' has even fewer ideas than 'Tree.' And Cannes was all aflutter over these two films? It must have been a very undistinguished group of films in competition last year. 'Anatolia' is a long, slow, boring dirge. Turkish filmmaker Nuri Ceylan, who has a very good reputation among serious cinephiles (but this is the first Ceylan film I have seen), takes a bunch of middle-aged male actors out to the remote, frighteningly barren countryside of Turkey in the middle of the night and follows them around with his camera as they amble about in a sleep-deprived stupor. They are playing policemen on a murder investigation. Why they are conducting an investigation in the middle of the night is never explained. Their caravan of broken-down vehicles pulls up to one barren location after the next, and all the men look around the ground for clues. Most of them are overweight, semi-educated imbeciles -- peasants with a high school diploma. The only one with real intelligence is a doctor, who inexplicably is along for the ride. That doctor becomes the heart of the movie, and gradually he does emerge as a slightly interesting character. But only slightly. He, like all the other characters, has nothing to do, so his character can only be contemplated in the abstract. In the last half-hour of this overly long film (two-and-a-half hours), I started to feel that Ceylan was a true artist. Probably only a minor one, but a true one. He does have something mournful to say about life and about people that is genuinely artistic. I just don't think he captured his artistic viewpoint very effectively here, either in the writing of the script or the directing of the film shoot. The cinematography, art direction, and editing is consistently pedestrian. My hunch is that he consciously chose a flat style -- flat neo-realist style is very popular in high-art cinema these days (see also Iran's "A Separation," which has become such an art-house hit in America and is likely to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film). But I don't think it served Ceylan's purpose at all. I can appreciate that he wanted to portray his characters as mind-numbingly boring and flat. But when the man behind the camera starts to seem mind-numbingly boring and flat, something has gone wrong -- at least for me.

February 11, 2012

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