Some films shouldn’t, by the laws of nature, exist. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a drama-thriller-whodunnit from prizewinning Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Uzak, Three Monkeys), ought to fall apart at the first touch or viewing. It is built entirely from paradoxes, like a machine made of incompatible parts. As a thriller it doesn’t thrill (or only the deepest parts of the filmgoer’s soul). As a “police procedural” it barely proceeds. For more than two hours the murder investigation team wanders over hills and through villages, by day and night, as, with a self-confessed killer’s help, it seeks a buried corpse.
At Cannes, where the film won the runner-up Grand Jury Prize, it was called “Chekhovian”. We know what that means. Nothing happens, everyone talks. Character is laid open by time and tragicomic serendipity. If you’re in a hurry, don’t go near this film. If you’re not in a hurry, don’t go anywhere else. It could change your life.
It says, shockingly, marvellously, messianically, that a living community, or family or human being, is by essence dysfunctional. If something or someone doesn’t work, it’s in a state of grace, progress and evolution. It will attract love and empathy. If it does work, it has merely completed its job and is probably dead.
No wonder tragedy and comedy, in art, are both celebrations of failure: the best subject. Here the state prosecutor, city-trained doctor and local police chief are three Chekhovian-Gogolesque officials tussling with the mystery of a “murderer” who probably isn’t one and a crime that definitely isn’t what it seems. The first scene sets the pace and tone: a snail-paced realism haloed by the ineffable. A lighted convoy of cars moves down a dusky hill like a processional Chinese dragon. Later there is a contrasting cinematic tour de force: a long, crime-determining autopsy, using poor instruments, whose dark comedy and graphic candour become almost literally hard to bear.
Half way between – at the 70-minute stage – comes the AGM. The Absolute Great Moment. An epiphany strikes wonder in everyone: the characters, the audience. The mayor’s daughter in a village home passes into the men-crowded room, a vision of dumb-striking loveliness, lit by a flickering lamp or two during a power failure. She carries a tray of tea glasses that rattle magically, a peasant version of a Mozart glockenspiel. Outside there’s a storm. Inside there has been the unpackaging of human beings that happens when people gather together, sheltered against wildness, a little drunk, sharing or intertwining the frayed ends of their soul. Then beauty comes in, plain and nature-gifted, and transcendence happens. This scene is cinema of utter, purest sorcery. But one could say that of the whole film.
In art it is never “what” that matters but “how”. A chair by Van Gogh is more important than a meaning-of-life painting by Holman Hunt. In Darkness, almost as long as Ceylan’s film at 143 minutes, takes a strong subject, the Holocaust. But Polish director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa) does little but stare at it like a child trying to make out shapes in the night.
We do that too. Lit by shaky flashlights or a candle, the huddle of Jewish escapees hides in the sewers under Lvov, shepherded there by worker and casual thief Leopold Socha (Robert Więckiewicz). The ghetto has been purged; Nazis stalk the streets. There are rats and quarrels; spasms of furtive sex; scares of capture; a rainstorm-caused flood that fills the chamber, in best Hollywood tradition, to chin point.
Socha was a true-life Schindler of the sewers. It is a weakness of In Darkness, one of many, that Holland and American screenwriter David F. Shamoon fail to motivate him. Socha took the Jews’ payment, but could have earned more, plus a fear-free life, by betraying them to the Gestapo. Więckiewicz plays him as plump, venal, dishonest, compassionate and brave: all those contradictions that good cinema can make sense of (see above) but bad cinema gawps at helplessly. The subterranean suffering is sometimes strongly done. You smell the filth, feel the cramped damp. Trivial tensions erupt, as they would. But these dozen men, women and children never emerge into full individualised life and we feel cut off – in the wrong, sanitising sense – from the worst horrors below and above ground.
Every month, a new Meltdown documentary. This month it is Four Horsemen, taking us on another tour of the world banking crisis. The FT’s own Gillian Tett is among the talking heads, talking sounder sense than most. Many lean in a leftward direction, Noam Chomsky almost horizontally. Novelty is welcome, of course. To date we have had the crisis every which way: Marxist-Leninist, McCartney-Lennonist, Marcus-Aurelian (“part of the great web”). Ashcroft’s take is cohesive and combative. He accosts us with the distinction between classical and neoclassical economics; he explains “Fiat” money (as in “let there be”, not as in Noddy cars from Italy); and he allows phrases such as “cognitive map” to be used as if the children have gone to bed and we now can talk like adults.
It’s a watchable, convincing docu-essay. I am sceptical only about the film’s assertion that the western world has reached the “decadent” phase of imperial decline. This theory is supported, says Ashcroft, by our increased penchant for promiscuous sex and TV cooking programmes (sic).
Bill Cunningham New York is a minor joy, lurking amid the week’s non-fiction. Cunningham is a veteran New York Times photojournalist, creator of its “Street Scene” fashion spreads. He catches haute couture as it whizzes round Manhattan worn by mortals not supermodels. Documentarist Richard Press films him lovingly, but could have spent less time on the glad rags and more on Cunningham's own shy, endearing soul, clearly that of a once “bright young thing” fallen into lifelong celibacy and a bashful religious faith.
Contraband and We Bought a Zoo are the worst that Anglo-American feature cinema can bring us this week. The first is a cockamamie smuggling thriller remade from an Icelandic original by Balthasar Kormakuar. Star Mark Wahlberg can do this kind of material in his sleep and does. The other actors, too, somnambulate through the freight-vessel trip to Panama, the stealing of the loot, the betrayals, murders and B-movie dialogue back home.
We Bought a Zoo is a comedy drama from the once reckonable Cameron Crowe of Jerry (“You had me at hallo”) Maguire. It smears American treacle over the truth-based story of a British family who bought a home with an attached zoo in Dartmoor. Here the animals are “adorable”, the kids likewise, and grown-up actors of substance (Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson) are afflicted with mass bland-out. The film lost me at “hallo”.