This year’s New York Film Festival again offers the chance to see a number of films from other places. During my second week of festival screenings, I was disappointed by The Student (El etudiante) and Miss Bala. However, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da), from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is the kind of mind-blowing viewing experience that I love and always look forward to at this Festival.
The Student begins by observing Roque (Esteban Lamothe) as he goes about his business at the rundown University of Buenos Aires. He’s a “hick,” as he and a friend call themselves, and wears a leather jacket to look more urbane. He half-heartedly takes part in student discussions, believes all politicians are the same, gets drunk, and casually does drugs. He appears to be a bit of a dim hunk, but his skills seducing women point to a wilier intelligence. From time to time, a narrator interrupts the action to fill in the protagonist’s backstories.
These stories suggest that filmmaker Santiago Mitre was influenced by Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, as the film is similarly detailed in its rendering of this Argentinean academic world. Roque, attracted to a leftist teaching assistant named Paula (Romina Paula), becomes heavily involved in their student group. Using a personal policy of actions over words, he attracts more believers, along with the interest of veteran politician and professor Alberto Acevedo (Ricardo Felix). But the politics become increasingly uninteresting as Roque is more involved in them. Worse, the movie’s outcome is obvious early on. This is a decent first feature from Mitre, but Roque’s education ends up being far too sentimental for my taste.
Miss Bala is less sentimental than odd, its intriguing premise undermined by a wobbly execution. The film follows a frenetic few days following Laura’s (Stephanie Sigman) decision to enroll with her friend Zuzu (Jessica Berlanga) in a Baja beauty pageant. She’s soon caught in the middle of a shoot-out between DEA agents and a drug gang, and is subsequently forced to work for the gang as a driver, gun runner, and undercover operative. Laura’s plight becomes increasingly surreal, and she appears to be a stand-in for the way Mexican citizens have been co-opted into the drug wars, flung about and wrung dry by the politicians, military, police, and drug cartels, particularly in the abuse, exploitation, and murder of women.
As this stand-in, Laura is something of a cipher, frequently shot from behind as if to emphasize how little we know about her. The movie gains a strange energy as she makes her way from one horrific scenario to the next, but at times it also suffers from her limited point of view. I wasn’t sure if director Gerardo Naranjo was aiming for darkly absurd humor or illuminating the chaotic evil of the border drug cartels. It doesn’t help that the violent scenes look too stiffly choreographed to make a visceral impact.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia also considers violence, but in a more immediately affecting way. It opens at night, as the members of a murder investigative team—including a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner), the police chief (Yilmaz Erdogan), and the prosecutor (Taner Birsel), as well as two suspects—search for a buried body in the countryside. The doctor emerges as the primary focus, a quiet Sebaldian observer of the world around him. As the prosecutor tells him they will someday tell the story of this night to their grandchildren, like a fairy tale, the movie offers an atypical police story that is comically quotidian. If the investigation lacks satisfying dramatic beats, the film offers other rewards, such as lyrical pastorals and ruminations on death, guilt, and memory.
Though the plot moves at the turtle’s pace some may associate with art house torture, the photography (by Gökhan Tiryaki) is so gorgeous and the details are so stunning (a black dog sitting over a grave, a face carved into a rock outcropping, the police chief described as “a handful of bees, all noise and no action”) that it’s never boring. I was immediately struck by the magnificent use of colors and light, as, for instance, the dark bruised purple of the countryside at night contrasts with the comforting orange glow of the car’s headlights.
The film includes a wonderful scene in which the men take a break at a village mayor’s house, when the power goes out. As the mayor’s daughter delivers tea to the men, we see each in close-up, as he receives the tea and reacts to her beatific, candle-lit face. During these brief moments, the theater was silent, the audience (at least myself) rapt with the mysterious aura of Ceylan’s imagery.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia