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Classic Gems: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan

19 October 2012 | Cinema Masterpieces, Features | by David Zou


Renowned Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s sixth feature film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia won the Grand Prize of the Jury for Best Film in Cannes Festival 2011,I watched it as my first Ceylan entry last night in Blu,felt a little bit surprised that the film is so dialogue-loaded.I have heard his cinema is hugely influenced by cinema masters like Michelangelo Antonioni and Andre Tarkovsky,so presumably it’s more about images than words,well,it’s not,at least this film isn’t.This film is very abstract so I did not get all the meanings Ceylan wished to convey in the first viewing,I can feel the deep melancholy in it,I also feel the director is trying to tell a story about the characters’ personal lives,their pressures from work and family,the bureaucratic problem of Turkey society,and humanity.No wonder I couldn’t catch them all in just one time viewing.

Scenes I liked

I’m not gonna talk about too much about the plot and its themes after my first viewing,so let me share some of my favorite cinematic scenes in this film.

The first scene is when the group of people was searching for the spot of the buried body,the camera deliberately follows an apple rolling down the hill and into a river,it’s a quite lengthy shot which is tough to catch during shooting,but what I’m gonna discuss is its metaphor.My interpretation is the apple symbolizes the lost innocence,which is one of the key theme of the film.The imagery easily reminds me of the scene in Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood in which a truckload of apples split on a beach,others argues that the metaphor is similar to the ones in Abbas Kiarostami films like Close-Up and The Wind Will Carry Us.In the last shot the film,the son of the victim kicked back a soccer ball to the kids on the playground,which is a perfect mirror scene to this one.

once upon a time in anatolia apple

My second favorite scene is,the electricity goes off when they are visiting the village and talking about the lives of the villagers,then this girl,who is the daughter of the village head,appears,holds a lamp and teas to serve those people.When the light is finally on her,we have a big close-up to her  gorgeous angle-like face,then it’s reaction shots of the different facial expressions on everyone’s face.Suddenly the victim who has been murdered in this case appears in the frame,smiles to the girl and takes over the tea,the criminal watches this with amazement.This is the best “waking dream” scene in the film,which suggests these images can only be seen by one character,not others.This kind of scene appears several times in the film,the ambiguity they bring to us is just fascinating to watch.


The last scene I love is in the end,the doctor is alone in his home,lost in thoughts,then a montage of old photos of him and his family takes up the whole screen,and finally stops as a photo features the doctor as a kid.This is another great scene which brings tremendous sense of melancholy,we sees the past of the character in these photos,and they help us understand the thoughts of the character.

The Sergio Leone Influence

One can easily connect the name the film with the name of Sergio Leone’s two best late film Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America,the melancholic feeling are the same,what they both want to convey with their films is the fascination of the wonderful past and the lost innocence.

The way Ceylan shoots the landscape of these steppes also reminds us of the wild wild west in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West,the comparison of the enormous landscape and the tiny human figure adds a legendary layer to the story.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

One of the biggest features of Leone’s style is big close-ups,bigger than they are in anyone else’s cinema,and Ceylan uses it a lot in this film,almost every major character has a close-up shot.In a film that is more about characters’ inner world,this technique is the best way to provide the audience an approach to look into the eyes of a character and get into his thoughts.


With the two Once Upon a Time films,Leone reinvents the Gangster and Western genre,while Ceylan also uses this film to reinvent the police procedure film,the film opens at the traditional third act of a police procedure film,and what director cares is not how they investigate the case,but rather the state of lives of these characters and the whole Turkish society,the procedure is the surface that provides a plot for a profound theme.

The Cinema Guild Blu-Ray

once upon a time in anatolia bluray cover

This Blu of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is one of the best of the year,in terms of its PQ and bonus features. The PQ is even more important in this film than any other films,because the first half of the film is shot on location entirely at night,which demands a high resolution for audience to see the characters’ faces clearly and other details as well.

The bonus features is just fantastic,even better than most of the CC releases this year,have a look


· BLU-RAY EXCLUSIVE: The Making of Once Upon A Time in Anatolia (2011, 96 minutes)
· Interview with the director (24 minutes)
· Anatolia in Cannes: (48 minutes)
TVCannes Videos
Press Conference
Red Carpet Gala
Award Ceremony
· “Lost in Thought” (2012, HD, 24 minutes),
a visual essay by Haden Guest, Director of the Harvard Film Archive
· Theatrical Trailer
· Booklet featuring introduction to Nuri Bilge Ceylan

I didn’t finish them,but the interview and video essay I watched are wonderful stuff.I many return to the making of feature after my re-visit.

Have you seen this modern masterpiece by Nuri Bilge Ceylan? What do you think of it?





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  • Great review. I love the way you didn’t presume to have the final word on it but presented your analysis as a kind of work-in-progress instead. I loved the characters of the doctor. Do you think he lied at the end about how the victim died (he refuses to say that he was buried alive) because he wanted to prevent the widow from experiencing further distress? It seemed like he had learned some kind of lesson from the pain he caused the prosecutor after convincing him that his wife had committed suicide. I only saw this once in the theater but I need to check out the Blu-ray. Great movie.

    • Thanks,Mike.Yes,the doctor is also my fave role in the film,and yes,he lied in the end,your explanation is exactly the same as mine,and I think our conclusion is quite close to the right one.

  • Loved the cinematography, I didn’t write this in my review, but Anatolia reminds me a little of what Michael Mann did with night time in Collateral (2004)

    I agree there is a lot to digest, so a 2nd viewing (or more) is needed. I liked the audience must act as detective and try and solve a case based on incomplete evidence, which is not easy to do.

    Yes, about profound themes, but I think we are also analyzing the efficiency of the police work.
    So I disagree when you say:”what director cares is not how they investigate the case”.

    Interesting interpretation of the apple symbolizing lost innocence, I didn’t think of that 🙂

    • Yes,the cinematography is stunning.Especially these scenes at night,fantastic lighting.

      The evidence indeed is not obvious,one has to watch very carefully to get the idea that the doctor cheated in the end for preventing another distress.

      There are problems about the efficiency of the police procedure,but I still don’t think it’s not what the director really wants to emphasize,it’s more about characters and their own stories.

      The interpretations of apple are open and rich,mine is just one of them,but glad you liked it.

  • Levent Cetin

    I am Turkish, not that it matters a lot in terms of what is being discussed here. But me and my friend watched the movie last night. And that was our interpretation as well. The doctor chose purposefully not to indicate on the report the fact that the victim was buried alive so that he does not inflict further pain on the widow and the son.

    Excellent cinematography and movie! Looking forward to Ceylan’s next film!