The camera lingers on the outside of a window, and the clearest things in focus are smudges on the glass. Vaguely perceptible, inside the room, are the outlines of three men huddled around a table. Eventually, the camera lets us see them eating, laughing and clinking glasses, but we still can't hear their voices, which are muffled by the outside sounds of traffic, dog barks and other nighttime noises. One of the three men -- a man with a bushy mustache who sticks his face directly in the window to see what's outside -- will be hog-tied and buried alive, killed by one or both of the two other men in that room.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a murder mystery -- where is the body hidden, and what motivated the perpetrators? -- but director Nuri Bilge Ceylan turns the search for answers into a riveting two-and-a-half-hour study of three men on the periphery: the police chief examining the crime; the doctor tagging along to perform the autopsy; and the prosecutor who is there to oversee the investigation, which takes place on a single night in a rural part of Turkey. The drama, which opens a one-week run at the SF Film Society Cinema on Friday, confirms Ceylan's status as one of Europe's greatest living directors, an inheritor of a mantle that was carried for years by Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman and Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Dialogue that's intense without being show-offy. Characters from everyday backgrounds who are confronted with circumstances that are challenging but not Herculean. Scenes that are framed against arresting vistas. These are the trademarks of Ceylan's films. If Edward Hopper had been a filmmaker, his movies would have been like Ceylan's, peopled by those who are often alienated from others or from their own emotions. Ceylan has said his characters are like him: A little dark, a little pessimistic, a little self-reflective. "I don't have very optimistic feelings about life," Ceylan told an interviewer earlier this year. "I like to look at things realistically, and with that realism comes pessimism."
What separates Ceylan's movies, which include Distant (about an urban man who reluctantly takes in a cousin from a village) and Three Monkeys (about a hit-and-run incident that leads to deception and family strife), are their defiant ambiguity: The characters' motivations are never crystal clear. It's one reason I love his films; the biggest mystery is piecing together the complexities of his protagonists.
"The problem with Hollywood," Ceylan has said, "is the audience expects to get the answers like a pill. They expect to know not just whodunnit, but the motives of the characters, the how and why. Real life is not like that. Even our closest friend, we don't know what he really thinks. In films we want more than in real life, everything being made clear."
And so in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the prosecutor (played with aplomb by Taner Birsel) hints that his deceased wife killed herself to punish his infidelities, though it's never exactly clear. And the educated doctor (Muhammet Uzuner), whose suspicions bring out the prosecutor's admissions, makes a decision that seems to cover up a crucial fact in the victim's death. And the police chief (Y?lmaz Erdogan) bullies his way through much of the probe, but practically cowers in phone calls with his wife, a woman we never see in person.
In subtle but important ways, the police chief, the doctor and the prosecutor all bring their relationships with women into the investigation. Ceylan, who grew up a big fan of Dostoevsky, is a literary filmmaker who co-writes his own screenplays and engages his audience with a poetic visual language (he's been a fine-art photographer for years) that gives his films room to breathe. In a crucial scene that momentarily pits the police chief against the doctor, who offers the alleged murderer a cigarette ("he wants a smoke, what else?"), the chief tells the suspect -- as the wind howls in the middle of the night -- "Look, if you want a cigarette, first you have to earn it. Nothing comes for free anymore. Look at the prosecutor. The guy studied law, he's worked. He can smoke and he can give people hell. Why? Because he's earned it. What have you done?" Then he tells the doctor, "You don't know these guys. They're such bastards, they'd rob you blind, the assholes. He's seen you're a pigeon. He's plotting now as we speak."
The interplay ratchets up the tension in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which was filmed entirely in Turkey. However, Ceylan films aren't devoid of laughter. At one point in Once Upon a Time, the prosecutor eyes the body of the hog-tied victim and -- describing him for a crime report -- says "the male corpse . . . looked like Clark Gable." The assembled crime-fighters laugh, and even the prosecutor lets out a smile. Dostoevsky, too, employed dark humor to great effect. It's another way you can find antecedents in Ceylan's films in many great European works, not just those of directors, but those of others who set a standard for the art of powerful storytelling.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia screens May 25-31, 2012 at the SF Film Society Cinema. For tickets and information visit sffs.org.