Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Brilliant “Once Upon A Time In Anatolia”, Where All the World’s a Country.

There’s a famous Italian saying which goes tutto il mondo e’ un paese. It’s sometimes translated as it’s a small world. But we use that in English when we’re far from home and we see something or someone that we only expect to see at home.

Whereas what the Italians mean when they say all the world’s a country, is that even here, miles from home, people live their lives worrying about the same things, and moving to the same rhythms as we all do, wherever we happen to come from. If you want to witness what that looks like, look no further than the brilliant new film from Nuri Bilge Ceylan (pronounced Jay-lan).

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia picked up the runners-up prize at Cannes last year. Unforgivably, the jury gave the Palme d’Or to Malick’s hopelessly overblown The Tree Of Life instead, reviewed here earlier. More fool them, this is a proper film.

In his interview with the London Independent here, Bilge Ceylan says that his latest film owes more to 19th century Russian literature than it does to any fellow film maker, not withstanding its title. And there’s no mistaking the air of doom and that sense of existential angst that hangs over the film, calling to mind the moral fog that so many of Dostoyevsky’s troubled characters are forced to wade through. But more than anything else, it’s the shadow of Chekov that so impressively shrouds it.

As with all of his plays, what we get here is a small group of figures in isolation who offer up a picture of the world in microcosm. A ne’er-do-well and his simpleton brother have killed a man, but they can’t remember where they buried the body. So the film charts the night and early morning as they, the police, the doctor and prosecutor traipse wearily across the barren landscape until they eventually unearth it.

But the actual crime is merely the excuse, the MacGuffin as Hitchcock called it, which allows us to witness the details of the humdrum existence that they lead, and the way in which they and their separate lives are all interconnected. Inevitably, in the course of their journey into the night, they and we discover the particular hidden histories that they are each defined by.

This is a palpable advance on the film that Bilge Ceylan was best known for up until now. Climates, his forth from ’06, had a wonderfully evocative dream sequence on the beach, and an impressively feral and all too believable sex scene at its centre. But the long stretches of ennui and detachment in between were all too life-like. That might be what life is like, but it’s not what most of us want our films to be like. Drama is what you’re left with when all of that has been excised.

Here in contrast, all the time that ticks over in between what little there is in the way of conventional plot is quietly thought-provoking, and serves to build an increasingly complex portrait of everyday lives.

It’s a man’s world to be sure. But as the fleeting apparition of the mayor’s beautiful daughter demonstrates, these are men whose lives revolve around trying to come to terms with the absence of the women in their lives, for whatever their different reasons, and the loneliness that engulfs them ever after.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every week  with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!