A BODY IS BURIED somewhere out there. A trio of vehicles roams hillsides and fields, headlights piercing the blackness to reveal a rolling countryside barren of almost any landmarks. The murder suspect rides in one of the vehicles, but he can't remember exactly where he buried the body—he was drunk when it happened. His mentally disabled brother, present but asleep at the time of the murder, is in another. The cars are filled with police and army officers, plus some men with shovels for when it's time to dig. They stop in one spot, look around, realize they're in the wrong place, and keep driving. This happens several times.
We're stranded out in the desolate countryside for nearly the first hour of the lengthy Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. (The title refers to the Asian portion of Turkey, which the ancient Greeks referred to as "the land of the rising sun.") Nearly every shot in the film is filled with shadow; unforgiving yellow and orange light exposes the corners of the dim. Very little happens, although we gradually get to know some of the men working on the investigation, including the police commissioner, the examining physician, and the case's prosecutor.
If this sounds boring, well, it is, mostly. But there's a beauty and rhythm to the way director Nuri Bilge Ceylan ponderously peels back layers of the central mystery—slowly, so incredibly slowly—to reveal further mystery. The questions Anatolia poses aren't answered; by the end, you think that you might know how a corpse ended up out in the wilderness, but you still don't have any concrete idea why. Ceylan's previous film, Three Monkeys, was similarly slow and symbolic, and it left me completely cold. With Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, however, the Turkish director has made something that extends beyond the frames of his picture. The result is a darkly dreamlike film that appeals to the subconscious in the way Andrei Tarkovsky's films do. Yes, it could use a little more plot, but such is Anatolia's power that your brain is more than willing to fill in the gaps.