The grand sweeping art movie – of the type produced by Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos, Bela Tarr and Zvyagintsev – adhere to formulas as rigid as those governing action films.

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Vast, empty but beautifully photographed landscapes, long unbroken takes, doom-ladened air, allegorical stories that unfurl at a steady pace with cryptic dialogue.

With his fourth feature, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has made a film to move him into the pantheon, yet seems to have done it while lightening up a bit.

The scope is mythic yet as down-to-earth as an episode of Casualty. Once Upon a Time is a masterly examination of what it is to be human but it is located in that most commercial of forms, a police procedural, albeit one with a limited amount of procedure.

Apart from a brief prologue, the events take place over the course of a single evening and following morning. A convoy of police cars and army trucks drive around the remote hills of Anatolia, central Turkey, trying to find the location in which a suspect claims to have buried the body of a missing man.

The suspect though has problems remembering exactly where it is, all the various tree/fountain combinations looking much alike, which irritates the local police chief who is under pressure from a prosecutor.

Sure it is slow moving and serious, but also humorous and enthralling. In popular culture the gallows humour of police congregations gathered around a corpse has become a cheapened and shallow cliché, a callous sop to the audience, flattering them that they have been somehow exempted from this lottery.

Ceylan gives gallows humour back its dignity, shows what it serves to the teller.

Even the best European art house fare invariably tests eyelid resolve – Tarkovsky helpfully included a five-minute midpoint nap break in Stalker. Ceylan includes a similar interlude, a dreamy period of rest and reflection as the team take a break from the search, but his film grips the attention for every one of its 157 minutes.

I’m normally a little sceptical of foreign language films that call themselves Once Upon a Time In; it always seems like hustle, a cheap allusion to better films.

This though carries the name proudly. It is a complete expression of the human experience from the philosophical abstract to the down-to-earth interest in what makes people tick.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (15)

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel, Ahmed Mumtaz Taylan and Firat Tanis

Length: 157 mins

*****

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