It’d be best to be prepared before going into this, for a long slow evening. Amongst the various aims of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s new film is the conjuring of the strange all-night atmosphere experienced by a group of officials in search for a dead body, based on the experiences of his co-screenwriter, Ercan Kesel, a doctor who partook in a similar investigation when serving in the same remote village region as depicted in the film. Another of Ceylan’s aims is an explicitly Chekhovian tapestry of apparent banalities, everyday concerns, and the passing of time, that will bring various of the characters unhurriedly to life, and add up incrementally to a portrait of something like life itself.
The film has nothing to do with the Leone near-namesake, although it does begin with three men waiting; a pantechnicon thunders past and, if they’d brought three horses with them, there’d be one too many. The end of the credits moves us days further on, by which time the remaining two have confessed to murder, and we’re on the early evening hunt for the grave, with policemen, soldiers, doctor, prosecutor and underlings. Although the main perpetrator claims to be able to take them to the grave site, he seems unable to remember the location, vague geographical details aside, and the landscape through which they travel over the course of the night, as one cop points out, all looks dispiritingly similar.
So fairly soon we realize the search is hardly the point compared to what takes place in the passing of this empty time. After a while, we no longer follow the frustrated chief into the off-road grasslands, but stick with the doctor as chats with a driver or the prosecutor. The conversations, in the car and by the roadside, range from debates about yoghurt to musings on mortality, the latter pulled off in unusually successful Tarkovskian style, holding on the backs of their heads, the gently waving grass in the golden headlights, and the still of the night.
At about 4am, a village stop-off brings the men a vision of beauty in the form of the local mayor’s teenaged daughter, offering tea in the lamplight. It is as though a shift away from reality were taking place, and moments later, the killer sees a vision of his victim. Somewhat earlier, the doctor was surprised in a flash of lightning by a giant, sinister face carved in the rock. It is as though there are things in life that are slightly beyond rational explanation; late on in the film the chief relates his wife’s constant worry about their disabled son: “why did God pick us?” The journey of life, here shown in long-shot, along winding roads through gently rolling hillsides, can be illuminated to an extent, but much of it will remain shrouded in mystery (the passage of a fallen apple down the hillside, to roll along a stream and come to rest by its rotting fellows, is superfluous in this respect). No wonder the film opens on a dirty window: the glass through which we see darkly, but which the power of cinema, of art (and focus-pulling) can help illuminate a little.
When daylight comes, we cannot see much clearer, the car’s windshield obscured by rain. But morning brings the final discovery of the body, and allows the bubbling-under comedy of the various personalities to emerge more fully, the relaxation of relief mixed with weariness, and perhaps Ceylan’s sop to the audience for having stuck it out thus far. But for the doctor, Cemal, the job is not yet over. We follow him back to his office, and Ceylan perfectly conjures that early morning feeling when one has not slept, and one moves slowly but with a special sort of awareness, as the town wakes up around him. The prosecutor too must finish his report before the autopsy begins, but the pair need also to finish a conversation that has recurred throughout the night: the prosecutor told of a woman who had successfully predicted her own death, to the day; Cemal expressed skepticism, and suggests perhaps a drug-induced, self-administered heart attack. But the actual reason for her death, or the reason for her suicide, remains obscure, and the conversation leaves both men feeling somewhat shaken in different ways.
The prosecutor makes his bald description of the corpse, and Cemal and his assistant stand next to the naked body – can this really be all there is to a man? Not at all, for he will have his concerns, both petty and significant, just as the assistant complains peevishly about his equipment. Throughout the film, a disconnect between sound and image is kept up as conversations play out over long shots of the cars in the landscape, and this reaches its apogee here in the coda, as the autopsy gets under way, entirely invisible but unpleasantly audible. And Ceylan has one final mystery for us: an unexpected, rather ghastly fact comes to light, which Cemal firmly omits from his report, and we cannot tell why.
Celan, as played by Muhammet Uzuner, is a quietly appealing presence, with a trustworthy manner and a handsome, thoughtful appearance. We have seen him extend a gesture of sympathy to the killer in fetching him a cigarette, and he has spoken, it seems, honestly and plainly throughout the film so far; we also suspect that he is melancholy about his ex-wife and nostalgic for his youth, from the photographs he flips slowly through in his morning office. But behind the appealing, Plainview-esque moustache, we do not know if he is really a man of integrity, or why he leaves his report incomplete. Ceylan says that there are least five reasons, and that the clues are there in the film; that we must use our imagination. They are hard to find. The final shot has Celan stare from the window at the deceased’s widow and child. It’s fairly certain the child is that of the confessed murderer, though less certain that it was him and not his brother who committed the deed; talk of the sins of the parents being paid for by the children perhaps prompts Celan’s decision, or maybe even the sense that there is already so much that is ghastly in the world that he may as well keep this extra horror a secret. As the prosecutor says, in his twenty year career he has more frequently needed to be an astrologer than an investigator to divine the motives of men.
So Ceylan leaves us with a slightly frustrating mystery, but one in tune with his thesis that life cannot be explained away neatly, merely half-examined through its mundane details. There are mysteries here that cannot be solved, atmospheres that hint at something beyond our obvious understanding. Fine naturalistic acting, superbly controlled pace, and subtly gorgeous photography align the audience with the special eeriness of the night-long journey; and the truly Chekhovian texture of the commonplace, like the fairytale suggestion of the title, conjures implications and substance far beyond the routine procedure of what actually happens.