At first we see nothing but a frosted glass wall. Soon it recedes, to reveal three men sitting around a table small enough to force them to eat off the same plates and pay some attention to where they replace their drinks. We would do well to remember their faces: one face we will see twice more; a second a few more times; and the last will stare back at us in disbelief for the rest of its existence. Two of the men are very intently conversing: one is talking and the other digesting every syllable as if it were an epiphany or a threat. The eyes of the third careen between the two in that way that non-participants have of insinuating themselves into the conversations and lives of others. When they toast and laugh at some hilarity, the interlocutors will slam their absinthes, and then tap the third’s soda can gently, because it is clear that gently is the only way this fellow must be handled. The talker will leave his garage and, ever weary of the coming storm, throw some scraps lovingly to his dog. But it is only when we espy comets hurtling down a midnight path that we truly find ourselves within this film.
The plot, we are assured, is a simple one: a face from our first scene, Kenan (Fırat Tanış), steps out of those comets, which happen to be police cars, the long palm of the law shoving him towards the darkness. He is asked questions (“Was it here?” “Are you telling me the truth?”) posed in like measure to the schoolchild and the criminal, with both terms readily applicable. No, there was a fountain, says Kenan, perhaps to wash away sins, years, tears – we have our surmises. He will continue to ogle in perplexity life and its inhabitants as if he cannot believe what has happened to him, which may be the very definition of hell. At the second, equally unsuccessful stop that long palm, which belongs to police sergeant Naci (Yılmaz Erdoğan), quivers in amazement as to why this search party of fourteen, including a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) and a prosecutor (Taner Birsel), cannot seem to find their object of desire. Kenan is not sure of the place because, to no one's surprise, he was inebriated at the time (Naci makes him confess in triplicate), and we recall his lustful chugs of his full and misty glass. From another comet emerges Kenan's brother Ramazan, the coke-swilling non-participant from our first scene, but he too doesn't know ("You don't know or don't remember?" Naci wonders aloud, the very conundrum of history). When he finally admits that he was asleep, his brother swerves his gaze of horror upon him, which means Ramazan at the scene of the crime may have been any number of things, but he was surely wide awake for its atrocity.
We learn something more about Naci and his intelligent but physically unwell son; we also learn that Arap (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan), his driver and sidekick, has no small resentment about this life and its injustices. Yet in short order all other characters yield to the thoughts and actions of two men, Dr. Cemal and Prosecutor Nusret. The similarities between the two men begin in very male matters: the prosecutor stops frequently to urinate and is accused of having prostate issues; the doctor heeds the call of nature discreetly in a quiet corner far from the band of corpse-hunters and is confronted by an ancient stone scarecrow. The doctor is divorced with no kids; the prosecutor blesses a childless divorce, then relates the tale of "the wife of a friend," a "smart, educated woman, not the least bit superstitious," who predicted her death to the very day. That gloomy day was less than a week after she had given birth to a healthy daughter. The film will furnish two explanations for this story and support both until its final minutes, during which a slip of the tongue implies only one possible reason the prosecutor could have sought the doctor's counsel. A third attempt by the searchers produces nothing more than anger and frustration and the group of men – except for one miserable scene in which the wife of one of the characters is forced to say "yes," women and children will be silent for the film's entirety – will proceed to a nearby village for some food and rest. It is here that manmade lights will go out, and the bringer of natural illumination will appear like some fallen angel – and we should say no more than that.
Ceylan's obvious precursor is this Russian director of genius: in Tarkovsky's masterpieces winds also caress lonely fields and trigger unforeseeable chains of memories; characters engage in long, impassioned dialogues until we notice that their lips have not been moving; and an undercurrent of fatidic patterning whispers that the symbols of our existence crouch in unplain sight. There are many such moments in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which seems much more concerned with its dead than its living (two unrelated requests for morgues surface), and none more beautiful than the way in which the doctor makes his final decision, the prosecutor reenters a room very unexpectedly, and Naci informs his captive that the rules have changed. In lesser films, all these scenes would have been imbued with histrionics, foul language, or, worst of all, non-diegetic music instructing the idiot viewer as to what he should be feeling at that moment. And why should it concern itself so much with its dead? Consider how long it actually takes the men to find the cadaver in question, and then how unceremoniously they handle their business; how the doctor sifts through old pictures, mostly of himself; how Arap explains what he does in free time; how the mayor describes his village's demographics; what happens immediately following one character's recitation of the film's title and reference to a fairy tale; and how the band of brothers and brothers' keepers always manage to remain one step ahead of the unrelenting rain. Because the rain will always overtake earthbound fugitives, be they above or below those plowed fields. Just like the apples a hungry and bored Arap loosens from a tree, shiny red apples with a crescent on its cheek. And we know what fairy tales tend to do with shiny red apples.