Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) leaves a lot unsaid, literally. For most of the film, which is more than two and a half hours long, a prosecutor, doctor, suspects, and cops are driving around in rural Anatolia, all looking for a corpse. We follow them in a car, from one hill to another, to yet another false burial site, always seated the same order in the car, with the suspects in the back and the prosecutor, Nusret (Taner Birsel), in charge. The film, co-winner of this year’s Grand Prix at Cannes, effectively conveys the monotonous search, the uniform Anatolian landscape, and the interminable journey.
In Ceylan’s previous film, Üç maymun (Three Monkeys), which won Cannes’ Best Director Award in 2008, a family fell apart in silence. Here, too, a sense of despair slowly creeps in without anyone having to declare it. At one point, the group is stranded in a small village. The lights go out and they sit in the dark, while the mayor’s daughter serves them drinks. Her youth and beauty become another cause for despondency: she will likely fade into obscurity in this forsaken place. Only a few moments of levity punctuate this hopelessness, as when Nusret likens the victim to Clark Gable in the official report, and claims he looks like Gable himself. Or when it turns out the cops have forgotten to bring a body bag, and have to hog-tie the corpse to fit it in the car.
The glacial pace and the long pauses, which prompted some spectators to check their watches, are indispensable for building Once Upon a Time‘s somber mood. Slowly, in a few brief conversations taking place almost half an hour apart from one another, two story arcs emerge. The suspect, Kenan (Firat Tanis), tearfully asks the cop, Commissar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), to take care of his child. Nusret recalls a woman who knew she would die after giving birth to her baby; the doctor, Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), suspects suicide. By the time the film is over, these personal stories become more heartbreaking than the benighted environment in which they took place.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Le Gamin au vélo (The Kid with a Bike), is the other co-winner of Grand Prix. It focuses on Cyril (Thomas Doret), a 12-year-old orphan who throws himself fully into any endeavor, whether criminal or personal. Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a bad boy in the neighborhood whom Cyril admires, gives him a nickname “Pit Bull” for his tenacity and ferocity in defending his bike from a teenage thief.
Cyril has run away from an orphanage to find his father, Guy (Jérémie Rénier, here in his fourth film with the Dardennes). Against all evidence, the boy believes his father can do no wrong, that he wouldn’t leave him in an orphanage or refuse to see him. As Cyril looks for his father, he comes across Samantha (Cecile de France) instead. A hairdresser who chooses to take care of him, she’s something of a mystery: the film offers no explanation for her decision to look after Cyril, only shows that she’s of an infinite patience and devotion to a boy she barely knows. She helps him to find his father, she buys back his bike for him, and she fights to keep him from running with the bad kids even at the expense of being stabbed.
Samantha’s calm is a counterpoint to Cyril’s constant anger. In contrast to both, Guy is indifferent. When the boy travels across town to a restaurant where his father works to offer him some money he’s just stolen, Guy worries that he’ll be held responsible for the theft and chases Cyril away.
The Dardennes, who have had eight films selected for Cannes and have won two Palmes d’Or (Rosetta in 1999 and L’Enfant in 2005), typically find in their complicated, downtrodden subjects an unlikely kind of hope. Samantha, who wins over the boy despite his love for his father and his infatuation with Wes, embodies that hope here, even if she seems too good to be true.
The Kid with a Bike
Bir zamanlar Anadolu'da (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia)
Le Gamin au vélo (The Kid with a Bike)