I was having an imaginary conversation with some friends in my head the other day, in which I was enthusing about Turkish cinema.
Now I could quite understand if they had responded by saying: "Turkish cinema? What's that then – The Odeon, Istanbul? Or is it Cineworld, Ankara?" After all, I suspect that the Great British Public (with a few exceptions) probably has no idea that there is a film industry in Turkey, let alone that it produces some mesmerising, compelling, prize winning work.
At Film Society we've been able to introduced our audience to some of this exceptional cinema over the years, notably by the two best known directors to emerge, Fatih Akin and Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
Both make distinctive films. Akin (who lives in Germany) likes to explore the issues and tensions that exist for the many Turkish people living and working there, in films like Head On (which we showed in 2007) and The Edge of Heaven (shown in 2009) – both prize winners at Cannes. His films are vigorous works, with strong characters and themes, where violence is never far from the surface.
In contrast, Ceylan's films are very different, being more slowly paced and exploring the complexities and personal motives that lie within people. His three best known films – all of which have won awards at Cannes too – are Climates (shown at Film Society in 2007) 3 Monkeys and the film that we are screening this Friday, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
This is one of the most enthralling films you could wish for. If you are a fan of The Killing or Spiral (who isn't?) and the way these dramas slowly unfold and reveal not just the truth behind the story but also the fears and weaknesses in the different characters, then come and see this film – you will be in for a treat.
It's a police drama about a murder. Right at the start of the film, we see both victim and suspects. We don't see the actual killing – but that's not the point. The key to this film's pleasures lie in what happens afterwards.
One of the men we glimpse at the beginning – Kenan – is arrested on suspicion of being responsible and agrees to take the investigating officers to where the body is buried. The team is led by Prosecutor Nusret, assisted by Cemal (a doctor) and various underlings.
However, it transpires that Kenan's memory is unreliable. He takes the team on a night-time tour of the Anatolian steppes as they try to pinpoint the exact spot where the victim has been dumped. This involves a considerable amount of travelling around on seriously poor roads with cars that are just as rough.
This is not a rewarding part of the job. No-one looks as though they really want to be out there (we can understand this from Kenan's point of view, but it's soon clear that the officials are not that keen either.) As they move from location to location, they chat to one another. Topics of conversation cover food, bladder habits, wives and girlfriends, authority and the nature of the job. Ordinary though these are, they gradually reveal frustrations, animosities and incompetencies that nag away inside each man.
Nusret and Cemal become the centre of interest as these conversations proceed. They discuss a case involving the strange death of a woman which may or may not have been suicide and which Nusret may or may not have been investigated correctly. As the evening wears on, there are suggestions that he may be more personally connected to the case than he is prepared to admit. And then, just as we think the doctor is the one true professional involved, he does something at the film's climax that totally confounds our perceptions.
The film works on several different levels. It's an intriguing procedural film, it shows human frailty in subtle but truthful ways and, if you're a fan of the moustache, then there is a much to admire in the rich selection on view. But it's absolute strength is the quality of the direction and cinematography.
Watching this film is like seeing a painting by Vermeer come to life. The pacing is deliberately slow and Ceylan is unafraid to let the camera wait and watch. The use of landscape is magnificent and the way he and cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki use light throughout – yellow light especially – is magnificent. The beautiful daughter of the local mayor brings the team some tea, her wordless passage through the darkened house illuminated only by the oil lamp she carries, which casts a spell not only on the waiting men, but on us as we watch. It's a quite superb moment in an engrossing, sublime piece of cinema.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (15) showing at The Venue, March 29: 7.30pm
Also showing at The Venue this week:
Saturday, March 30: Family Film Club – Sammy's Great Escape (U): 2.30pm. Also on the same day: Hitchcock (12a): 7.30pm.
Sunday, March 31: Bolshoi Ballet: Esmerelda: 2.30pm.
Wednesday, April 3: Opera Australia – Madam Butterfly: 2.30pm. Hitchcock (12a): 7.30pm.