The Anatolian Leopard is the oldest and the rarest inhabitant of the oldest zoo in Ankara. Our protagonist has been the manager of the said dilapidated zoo for the past two decades. Both these elements explore traditional olden values, and Anatolian Leopard the film is a social commentary on the volatility of said values’ existence. It is unexpected then to find an almost meditative take on the story instead of a caustic or biting one, with the titular leopard acting as the allegory.
Fikret (Ugur Polat) is the manager of a failing zoo in Ankara. Like the zoo, Fikret’s life is falling apart, with his character almost walking through it in a fugue state. As we see him parking his car miles outside the zoo and then walking through the mud, shivering in the cold, while passing a pickup truck carrying a giraffe, this realization is given form. In empty offices, employees gather around the office of the “Mr. Director” and ask for his blessings before leaving their job. These are breadcrumbs of setups undertaken by writer-director Emre Kays until the full premise slowly begins to take form.
A consortium of Arabs is planning to demolish the zoo and redevelop it into an amusement park, a plan which the small town of Ankara is also in favour of. The only rut in their plan is the presence of an Anatolian Leopard, a Leopard species protected by law. As long as the leopard is present in the zoo, the development shall be on hold, much to the chagrin of Fikret’s boss. Fikret, on the other hand, is very content with the leopard’s presence helping stall these events. This ensures that his passion for the work can continue unencumbered as it has for the last twenty-two years (as everyone is intent on reminding him). His work is the only identity Fikret has, the only existence he values, wakes up for, and trudges along with every day.
But while Fikret is content to let monotony and his own set perspectives towards life guide him, the world is moving on. Like the Anatolian Leopard, Fikret too is part of a generation the world is content to respect for their contributions, however, they resemble the old days and a brand of nationalism that could be deemed stagnant. Fikret slowly realizes and tries stubbornly to stick with it that he isn’t a modern, progressive version of the world ruled by capitalism and business ventures. When the Anatolian Leopard finally dies of natural causes, Fikret and his neglected female assistant Gamze are beyond happy to perpetuate the ruse that the leopard has escaped and is roaming in the wild.
How Kays chooses to progress after this revelation is where the movie stumbles. There is a pronounced inherent stagnancy in Fikret’s character, complemented by the melancholic tone in the movie. The stagnancy appears unchanged even when different reactions of the townspeople percolate through. However, there isn’t any tension. The austere nature of the cinematography and the lack of a prevalent background score also acknowledge the deliberately slow pace of Kays’ crafty character study via an allegory-heavy story. The points where the movie works are all the events that are depicted or delivered via newsreels or as exposition by off-screen characters, with reactions (imperceptible as they are) filtering across Fikret’s face. Through these, Kays manages to highlight the epidemic of fake news or the formation of any narrative deviating from the truth. Further, Anatolian Leopard ends on a piece of somber and somewhat predictable news where the actual truth doesn’t hold as much water as much as the conclusion of the said faux-narrative.
Ugur Polat as Fikret is fantastic as the man is almost catatonic in facing life’s difficulties with a straight and impassive face. Like the trunk of an oak tree, the wrinkles and striations of Polat’s visage manage to convey emotions far more effectively/prominently than dialogues ever would. His Fikret is a man who masks his cowardice under the cover of self-righteousness. He manipulates himself into thinking his actions are a result of self-sacrifice rather than inaction. It could be taken as a metaphor for the old guard, olden political regime, which is fed up with the changes and the resultant new world but is unwilling to be a proactive part of the change.
The movie, however, feels like it’s spinning its wheels in favor of the love with the melancholia of the central character. However, the cinematography by Nick Cooke, highlighting the austerity, and Ricardo Saraiva’s editing manage to highlight the aesthetic of the film, even though it feels like an unnecessary choice. However, Kays’ handling of the material feels like a confident and assured take, with the move managing to leave a lasting impression, bereft of an emotional wallop.