Once Upon a Time in Anatolia Review

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Grand Prize winner from Cannes 2011 hits blu-ray in the UK. We review…

The Film

The classic opening words of children’s fables have become a signifier for films that attempt to take on epic subjects. Sergio Leone used it to sum up two founding periods of modern America, Tsui Hark used it to explore modern and historic responses to nationhood and Roberto Rodriguez decided to blow a whole load of shit up whilst saying nothing of value. Here it signals an evening’s drinking that goes very wrong and the aftermath in a rural Turkish town, a stumbling unimpressive search, and very occasional flashes of meaning and beauty.

Yet, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s long, often uneventful film isn’t a bore or a deliberately non-epic work, it takes time to explore contrasts of status, culture and appearances by following the meandering procedural of a police search for a dead body and revealing many elements of the land it takes place within. Whilst loosely revealing the circumstances that led to the crime being investigated, Ceylan takes more interest in the lives of the characters affected by it..
Subtly, slowly and very humanely, the people of this story are explored for their differences and their similarities. In the course of the search, we learn that the prosecutor has a terrible secret exposed in chats through the night with the far seeing doctor; the police sergeant bumbles, brutalises yet eventually empathises with his suspects; and a brief stop for food in a small village explores a poorer, traditional world forgotten by the searching townsfolk, before reminding all, the police, the army and the suspects, of unexpected beauty.

Visually and thematically, contrasts are revelled in by the director. We start in night lit only by car headlights, and the brief visit to the village even falls into darkness because of a power cut. We then enter the day and when the body is found, the “inhumanity” of its death is then mirrored by how it must be transported and finally examined. These endless and careful counterweights lead to a very humane and rich experience for the viewer where we are left more aware of the eventual justice that is achieved than any of the characters.The level of care Ceylan shows in keeping the characters detailed whilst embracing their foibles and not falling prey to sermonising is breathtaking. The feat of creating a film that has an aesthetic beauty and purity whilst remaining with the characters rather than judging them is a true achievement, and to reconcile that what begins with a friendly game of cards can end in a cruel death without resorting to an easy moral narrative similarly impressive.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was a worthy award winner at Cannes, and will please those who want film-making that is both technically impressive and refreshing humane.


New Wave films release the film on 2 disc DVD and a Blu-ray too. The Blu-ray contains a HD trailer with all other special features being in standard definition. The interview included from Cannes features the Turkish equivalent of Garth Crooks asking the director unbearably long questions prefaced by several minutes of his own opinions. Ceylan is interesting in revealing just what a stretch the night-time scenes were and how this was his largest production of his career so far.

The 90 minute making of documentary follows pre-production and then the shoot itself with much footage of the director getting very hands on with the cast, some of whom are interviewed on set about the project. This is no cut and paste job, and the documentary is properly produced with occasional flourishes like an opening montage without sound as the director has a meeting about the project in his offices that then melts into the night shoots and the footage I mention above.

Transfer and sound

We were sent both the DVD and Blu-ray releases and I’ll comment on both here. The Blu-ray contains a 33.6GB file of the film itself which is very impressive in terms of basic detail, lack of edge enhancement and black levels – crucial for a film that has half its action in the dark. The standard definition release is very good as well, although edging is more obvious and colours are much less vibrant to my eye.

The Blu-ray carries PCM stereo and master audio 5.1 mixes, and the DVD simple stereo and 5.1 tracks as well. Both 5.1 tracks make much of the atmosphere and effects which are distributed well within the mix, and voices are mixed within the sound-stage as well. I did prefer the 5.1 mixes as the film is quite hypnotic at times and a surround experience helps you to surrender to it, clearly the lossless option is much the superior one. English subtitles are specific, clear and optional.


A terrific piece of cinema that delivers on the “Once upon a time” tag by serving up an intriguing slice of humanity, sensitively examined by Ceylan and his excellent cast. The Blu-ray has a very good transfer, two options of lossless sound and great extras.

John White

Updated: Jul 01, 2012

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