Every now and then something comes along that is so undeniably great, that is moreover so rightly convinced of its own greatness, so certain of its glittering brilliance in every regard, that no-one has any option but to kneel down in its path and salute it. You might consider the opening notes of Pet Sounds, for instance, in which Brian Wilson clearly stakes a claim to be considered as one of the greats: the light, melancholy notes leading up to the big boom of drums, followed by the great choral surge of the refrain 'wouldn't it be nice': there is nothing hesitant or shy or small here. Or you might think of the look in Roger Federer's eyes during his great run of victories at Wimbledon - he was unassailable, fully committed to his performance, and certain of his dominance.
Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, the latest film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is similarly assured: from the first wondrous opening shots, the spectator knows that s/he is in the presence of something truly good, that will be unquestionably powerful and right. In the opening pre-credits scene, the camera pans forward to a dusty roadside garage, dimly lit at night in the Turkish countryside somewhere; it steals up to the building and gradually focuses in on a little room through a grimy window, revealing three men sitting down, playing cards; one of the men eventually rises and comes to look out through the window, and the camera, still positioned there, picks out his lined grey face and wild eyes in close-up before pulling back once more to show him standing at the window from a further distance. In a second shot, he comes outside to feed a dog tethered to a post, and a lorry passes on the road in front of the garage. Credits.
The credits imply that some sort of action prefiguring the rest of the narrative has taken place. The subsequent shots -which are when the true greatness of the film is made clear -reveal that an investigation is taking place, as policemen, a prosecutor and a doctor try to find the location of a buried corpse. The first shot after the credits is a long distance vista of a hilly countryside at night, into which gradually some light steals, and moves along with further light in its wake; at a distance you think it might be a train, but it is revealed to be a line of cars, whose headlights illuminate the countryside around them, and who come to a halt near the point of filming. Using the light from the headlights, still, Ceylan films the policemen, the doctor and the prosecutor asking whether this spot is the location of the body. With them is a criminal, uncertain where he buried the cadaver. After a long scene in Ceylan's unblinking camera, in the yellow light of cars against a dusky backdrop of fields, the men set off once again, and the next shot is of five men in a small car: a chief policeman, his second in command, the prosecutor, the doctor, and the criminal. The four officials distract themselves from the case by talking about buffalo yoghurt and its availability in their neighbourhood, in a revealing, gently amusing conversation which points their characters to perfection, while the camera pans ever so slowly from the front of the car to reveal the wild, exhausted, beautiful face of the criminal, silently sitting in the penumbra of the back seat, in total quiet and misery.
In these five shots, which have lasted maybe twenty or twenty-five minutes, Ceylan shows of what he is capable. We perceive that he wants things and characters to reveal themselves slowly, without artifice; that his grasp of character places people as small players in a wide world that has no certainties for them to clutch onto; that his tale is at once funny and deeply sad and troubling, and that while it is a story based in a real world with real causes and consequences to its actions, Ceylan's modus operandi is the fable. In his delicate, brilliantly conceived microcosm of society (the policeman, the prosecutor, the doctor, the criminal), Ceylan owes a clear debt to Chekhov, but he tells his fable in a manner of his own, somewhere between wry, absurd, kitchen-sink and macabre. We also see from these opening shots the sheer beauty of his composition: this is a gorgeously cinematic film which consistently produces gasp-inducing frames of great beauty.
The investigation is now afoot, and to say more about the plot (which is as engrossing as any thriller) or the interactions between its chief actors (which are beautifully observed, and which show the character of the players in revealing glimpses into their lives) would be to spoil the many rich delights of this great human tapestry. The chief thread running through the work, though, is essentially to do with the problem of perception: in an ongoing, fascinating discussion between the doctor (the voice of logic and reason) and the prosecutor (the voice of doubt), we see Ceylan attempting to figure out ways in which to comprehend the mysteries of our world. The film asks whether there can be answers to everything, whether we can truly know or understand each other.
In the midst of this - and remember that this is a very male film, in a male society - a scene occurs in which kindness and beauty, in the figure of a young girl bringing drinks and food to the men at night, disarm everyone and remind the men of the power of loveliness in the world. Filming the girl's beautiful face in the light of her oil lamp against the thick night, and the silent, enraptured men in close-up, bathed in that light also as they accept the food in wonder, Ceylan manages a scene of perfect, sublime grace.