At the end of the second week two films gripped me by the collar and shook. Walking out of the Dendy Opera Quays after seeing Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia I was struck by the contrast between its generally older audience and the fashionable, youthful patrons queuing for entry to the next session, a US indie called The Comedy.
Perhaps I'm making too much of this, and no disrespect is intended to the US film, but this struck me as sadly indicative of a generational difference that doesn't flatter today's younger filmgoers. Bilge is very much an auteur of the moment rather than a blast from the past or a veteran failing to live up to former glories. Ceylan has only emerged as one of the great auteurs of world cinema in recent years thanks to films like Uzak (aka Distant), Climates and Three Monkeys.
He is the nearest today's young cineastes have to an Antonioni or a Tarkovsky of their own, a master who's very much at the peak of his powers. He surprises and delights with every new film. So why the preponderance of older faces in the audience? Is it because his often sublime style – lengthy takes of artfully composed long-shot compositions obviously influenced by his background in still photography – is too distant from today's more swiftly-edited aesthetics? The irony here is that for the first time Bilge employs the kind of delicious verbal humour that younger audiences, reared on Tarantino as their baby milk, would surely respond to.
Anatolia takes the form of an unconventional police procedural. Unconventional because it ditches the usual thriller component: it couldn't care less about the mechanics of the crime (it starts where most films of this nature end, just after the killer has been apprehended) and focuses very much on the procedure. In this it shares much with another strong SFF item, Polisse – Maiwenn's otherwise very different French movie about a police child protection unit.
A small entourage of cops, a doctor, district prosecutor and diggers haplessly tour the countryside at night trying to find a murdered man's grave with an arrested suspect and his accomplice who are less than helpful. These cops are initially more concerned with discussing the difference between yoghurt and cheese, or urination frequency and prostate problems, than the crime. This, note, is no cartoon; Ceylan is keen to show how things really are in police work. Yet he avoids anything resembling dull social realism, creating instead a heightened poetic view, each image burnished and perfectly composed.
With its extreme long shots of intense yellow car headlights slowly heading across a night-clad hilly landscape, the film brought frequent reminders of the films of Iran's Abbas Kiarostami – hardly coincidental, given both started out as photographers. (For examples of Ceylan's stunning still images, I recommend you check out the photography section of his
personal website here.)
It's hard to argue with the official festival description of the film preceding it at the Dendy, Twliight Portrait: a “searing debut feature from Angelina Nikonova… an unsettling and deeply disturbing look at contemporary Russia.”
This is a Russia where women are unsafe to walk the streets without being robbed and then raped by the cops called upon for help. But lest viewers take this for a standard feminist take on a cruel masculine world, two thirds of the way through the film takes an alarming left turn and the female victim, a woman named Marina, starts behaving in an alarmingly unexpected, even repellant fashion: cosying up to one of her rapists. Revenge is obviously the initial motive but then…
Is this believable? Well, it is as long as you assume, as I did, that she is so beaten down by a brutal and uncaring society that she has gone beyond the brink – past the point of caring, of self-respect, to reach a state of abjection. This was indeed a searing film – and a provocative and unpredictable one at that. I want to see what Nikonova does next.