Film Carew

24 May 2012 | 4:39 pm | Anthony Carew

How does Robert Pattinson shape up in the eyes of the Merchant/Ivory set? Also: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and Silent Souls.

Deep in the dark of an eerie night, huddled in the sprawling emptiness of the Turkish steppes, a small crew of investigating officers —local and fedral policemen, a prosecutor, a doctor, a pair of drivers— trail along on an ambling body-hunt, in which a quiet local, having already confessed to killing his friend, tries to remember exactly where —in a drunken haze of rage and terror— he buried the body. Though its stilled opening scenes only really reveal their meaning on second viewing, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest stark parable —the first of his withering, weighty, Tarkovsky-inspired pictures to ever earn local cinematic release— is a police procedural in the most tenuous fashion, its ties to the genre effectively cold comfort. In this investigation, there's no CSI thrillseekin', only awkwardness, tedium, smalltalk. Standing idle on the steppes, the cops are restless, but they can already rationalise this frigid, faltering, haunting night as a future anecdote. “You can tell it like a fairytale,” says one local. “You can say 'Once upon a time in Anatolia, when I was working out in the sticks. I remember this one night that began like this…'” So Once Upon A Time In Anatolia finally reveals itself, a full 20 —particularly stilled— minutes in. From a filmmaker obsessed with parables comes a film in which storytelling —how narratives represent, elude, or distort notions of 'truth'— is the symbolic currency. After early dialogue is deliberately incidental — friendly patter about yoghurt, lamb, prostates, and workplace politics— the suggestion that the 'action' of the narrative will one-day be but a story to be told leads us into a conversation that sets this thematic tenor: in which the prosecutor (Taner Birsel) tells the cosmopolitan doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) the fable of a radiant beauty who prophesied her own end, dropping dead at the very moment she had solemnly foreseen. It's told with the self-serving logic of local folklore, a closed narrative loop safely out of reach; a sweet fable for all that is beyond our ken. Yet the doctor doesn't swallow the story: instead, like some man of science, he begins to chip away at it. The pair return to the tale three times, and each 'investigation' of the narrative —mirroring, of course, the central thrust of the procedural— reveals its own revelations, the notion of 'truth' shifting, ever slippery, each time it's addressed, discussed. The doctor, early in his cross-examination, wonders why there wasn't an autopsy; a notion that seems initially absurd —the province of poking science and CSI cliché— in the face of such a perfectly-told folktale. Yet the autopsy becomes a potent symbol of progressiveness, of modernism, of science, of faith under attack; a cold, cruel, muckraking defilement of all that is whole, holy, and beautiful. The disjunct between the folklorist and the scientist makes tangible the profound division between the rural locals and urbane interlopers from Ankara. These are familiar themes for Ceylan, things he's explored before: in 2002's Uzak, his achingly empty tale of modern alienation and Turkish cultural division; and 2006's Climates, in which a failing, oppressive, passive-aggressive marriage was a potent metaphor for Turkish society itself. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is far more aloof, far slower moving, far more gently suggestive than any of Ceylan's previous works; working with a subtlety that was completely absent in his near-biblical, blackmail-riddled last picture, Three Monkeys. It's a film of sublime subtlety, whose long and unbroken shots will reward the patient and mentally active; its great revelations —in both the main police investigation and the discussion of the drop-dead dame— delivered as if mere ripples on the narrative surface, their currents running deep, dark, well beneath. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia ends, fatefully enough, with an autopsy. And, here, the province of cold, clear criminal-investigation is revealed to be anything but, sifting through human remains being a glorified form of seeking divination in entrails. An autopsy's results are just another form of storytelling; the findings of science to be interpreted, used, and retold in a manner that says so much more about the living than the dead.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Silent Souls features a telling instant that —if seen in a procedural light— defies any and all expectations. Our narrator (Igor Sergeyev) and his travelling companion (Yuri Tsurilo) are transporting the body of the latter's freshly-dead wife to a date with a funeral pyre on a riverbank. A policeman peers into the backseat, sees the dead woman draped merely in a blanket, and lets them drive through; to the shock of cop/crime-movie-raised audiences everywhere. It's, quite profoundly, a moment of shared cultural understanding, an instant in which ancient tradition is allowed to puncture society's rules. Our men —travellers and policeman, both— are all descended from the Merja, an ancient Finno-Ugric tribe whose traditions persist, all but faintly, in modern-day Northwest Russia. Filmmaker Aleksei Fedorchenko conceived the picture as a tribute to this cultural heritage, and to his parents; and, in turn, as a sad lament for dying traditions, an ode to all the micro-cultures lost beneath the dominant ascendancy of Judeo-Christian religion, hyper-capitalism, and globalisation. Adapted from a freeform novella from Denis Osokin, Silent Souls attempts to make tangible an elusive tone-poem; to give cinematic structure to a meditation “typed on the sides of dead fish” underneath the ice of a frozen river. Taken to screen, this text has been identified as a road movie; and, true, it finds a pair of men in a car, undertaking a journey more symbolic than literal. But the film slips along as if a string of dream-sequences; flowing, eternally, like a river; the narrative's succession of mourning rituals and watery imagery making the profound, near-pagan connection between the female and the Earth; the cycles of water as the cycles of life.

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“I will not be stopped!” snarls Bobby Pattinson, flat-nosed and grim-faced and never-smiling, as the horrendous, eponymous anti-hero of the back-stabbing frock-movie Bel Ami. His Georges 'Bel Ami' Duroy is one of those familiar foils from classic-literature: the rapacious social-climber; “a failed soldier, barely literate” who blackmails and backdoors his way from the gutter to the peaks of Parisian society. Of peasant stock and fresh off five years in the Algerian deserts, he stumbles his way into an audience with the powerful and is almost instantly presented with a piece of prime, if poisonous advice: the men may appear to have the power, but it's their wives who hold all the cards. So, Pattinson —hair forever glistening with the grease of his lower-class heritage— sets about seducing them; Christina Ricci, Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Holliday Grainger all falling victim, in one way or another, to this raffish rogue's manipulative charms and like totes hot bod. Though it's presented with all the familiar frockery of the Merchant/Ivory set, Bel Ami blessedly comes from the scalpel-sharp quill of Guy de Maupassant, and his History Of A Scoundrel has enough socio-political bite, still, to draw blood from the bland ranks of Sunday Afternoon period-piecery.