Cops take a suspected murderer onto a rocky hillside while a doctor, a prosecutor, some soldiers and a driver observe from near their cars on the side of the road. The driver suggests that the doctor will someday recast the story of that night as a fable, starting with the words "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia."
That's the title of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's picture, which won the Grand Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. But the movie is not a fable or much of a parable.
Instead, with a nod to Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America," it's a lingering examination of the men who are driving around together and the culture they inhabit.
A handful of central characters' stories intertwine but rarely overlap. The film centers on Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), who has brought his big-city skepticism to a rural town; Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), who has come from Ankara to close the investigation; and Commissar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), the beleaguered cop who's in charge of finding the body.
Leading them there -- and on something of a wild goose chase -- is suspect Kenan (Firat Tanis). Driving the car that carries the doctor, the cop and the suspect is Arab Ali (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan).
Structurally, "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" is a police procedural, albeit a slow-moving one, crossed with a road movie. It opens with three guys, including the suspect, eating and drinking in a garage, then moves to the three police vehicles driving down a rural road.
The suspect, who claims he was drunk when they disposed of the body, leads them to so many locations, the prosecutor orders them to stop for a late-night meal at the home of the mayor of a small village.
There, the only notable female character, the mayor's beautiful daughter, emerges in a doorway, her face bathed in light. She's serving drinks after the electricity has gone out. But her beauty and the light are the feminine contrast to everything that has come before -- and will come after.
Ceylan, who co-wrote and directed the film, is looking into the nature of men in general and in the Turkish culture specifically, exploring prejudice against Arabs, urban vs. rural outlooks and conflicts and, most tellingly, unearthing the secrets and delusions of his generally taciturn subjects, their weaknesses as it were.
That's accomplished through dialogue and the camera of Gokhan Tiryaki, whose lingering closeups and long, beautiful dimly lit vistas evoke the characters and place as much as the words.
"Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" is a butt-numbing two hours, 37 minutes and, to be honest, there's not a lot that really happens in the picture.
In fact, I never figured out exactly who was killed or why, and the how is left up in the air. But making something happen isn't the point of Ceylan's superb, deeply resonant film that is about men, their hidden lives and their communication -- or lack thereof.