Dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey/Bosnia-Herzegovina, 2011, 158 mins, Turkish with subtitles
Cast: Muhammet Uzuner, Taner Birsel, Yilmaz Erdogan
Review by Dave Hall
Turkey’s most celebrated filmmaker has come up with something seemingly out of character here: an almost documentary-like reconstruction of the hunt for a murder victim that is formally austere to the point of asceticism. But fans of Climates and Three Monkeys will start to recognise some of Ceylan’s familiar esoteric concerns: mortality, memory and portraits of men (for it’s almost exclusively men) adrift in their own lives.
A group of officials, including Police Commissar Naci (Erdogan), Prosecutor Nusret (Birsel) and Doctor Cemal (Uzuner), set out one evening to find a dead body in the Anatolian steppes. Problem: the self-confessed murderer Kenan (Firat Tanis) is not exactly sure where he’s buried it, and anyway it’s so dark that everywhere looks the same. As the night wears on, and Naci’s temper starts to fray, Nusret and Cemal take to sharing professional and personal secrets. The group eventually stop over in an impoverished hill village, where a power cut provides a tantalising glimpse into the spirit world. Finally next day Kenan guides them to the killing field. In the cold light of day, the legal and scientific mechanics of death take over.
You might think that two and a half hours spent in cramped cars and windswept villages with three men in the grip of mid-life crisis is akin to a masochist’s manifesto. But Ceylan is nothing if not a craftsman and the painstaking precision he brings to this fact-based procedural leaves nothing to chance; the film ripples with the effort cast and crew must have expended to make it look this seamless. The complete lack of action orCGIeffects (raised voices and a stalled car are as excitable as it gets) coaxes us to look for undercurrents, even as we’re slowing down to meet the film’s pace. And the way Ceylan builds a timeless, dislocated dreamworld from blanks and absences is undeniably subtle. It is only when we finally arrive at a centrepiece scene, involving the daughter of a village mullah, do we realise how far from the material world we’ve wandered.
Up to this point, some possibly improvised business with a rolling apple aside, Ceylan seems to have wilfully withheld his ability to wrong foot us with the off-kilter flakiness that characterised his earlier films. But here he pulls off a flourish that defines the film, even if it is nothing to do with what comes before or after.
At a time when most films have run their course, we still have the discovery of the body and its farcical transportation back to the city to come. And any film that ends with an autopsy risks being tagged DOA. But it’s the dissection of the tensions between the personal and professional, the material and the spiritual that is Ceylan’s real concern, and the muscularity he brings to the bare bones plot powers the film through the long Anatolian night.