Emotionally powerful new film brings story of Armenian genocide to light
April 24th is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, so opening The Promise this weekend is obviously intentional. Irish director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and screenwriter Robin Swicord have made the first major Hollywood picture to tell a story about the horrific event commemorated by that date. If you can’t see the film this weekend, I would encourage you to see it when you can, as a way to both honor the tragedy’s victims, and to learn a history that many non-Armenians know far too little about.
That so few non-Armenians know about the systemic extermination of over a million Armenians during World War I may be in part because Turkey, the country responsible for the slaughter, to this day refuses to acknowledge the genocide. A related controversy has already engulfed the film, as thousands of genocide-deniers took to IMDB before the film was even widely released to give it one star reviews in an effort to discourage audiences from seeing it (you can read more about that in an excellent Hollywood Reporter article here).
So already we know the film is both controversial and important on a number of levels. But the question that concerns this piece, of course, is: How does the picture actually fare cinematically? The short answer is that as a historic drama, it works well enough to keep the viewer actively emotionally and intellectually engaged. For the longer answer, we’ll start first with the plot basics.
The film opens in the village of Siroun, Turkey, in 1914, on the eve of World War I. Armenian Christians and Turkish Muslims have been living and working side by side for years, but as will happen years later similarly with the German gentiles and Jews during World War II, the Turks have deemed the Armenians as detrimental to their cause and lives, and have begun rounding up and “relocating” them, a term that Turkish officials will never stray from using, even as “relocation” becomes synonymous with murder.
Here in Siroun we meet Mikael (Oscar Isaac) an Armenian apothecary making his way to Constantinople for medical school, with the help of a dowry he’s received by promising (there’s the title!) to marry Maral (Angela Sarafyan), a young woman he barely knows, but whom he convinces himself he’ll grow to love. Things turn complicated once in Constantinople, though, when Mikael meets the Parisian-educated Armenian Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), tutor to his uncle’s children. The two have an instant and strong connection, much to the dismay of Ana’s American reporter boyfriend, Chris (Christian Bale). As Armenians, Ana and Mikael are of course in imminent danger, and the movie details their attempts to escape and survive the persecution of their families and their people, with help from Chris and other sympathizers.
The war setting and the love triangle may remind viewers of another (and, let’s be honest, better) war movie. Indeed, Rick’s memorable line to Ilsa in Casablanca that “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” kept running through my head as I watched The Promise.
Using the much smaller Mikael-Ana-Chris story as a narrative framework to bring us into a story of epic and almost unfathomable proportions is thus understandable, but sometimes almost feels trite compared to the horror that’s surrounding our protagonists. That said, however, the trio all do fine work, and Bale, especially, conveys an American sensibility remarkably well for a Welshman. Another Brit playing an American, though, gets to deliver the powerful, applause-worthy speech of the movie; James Cromwell, as Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, only has a few minutes on screen, but they are the ones that are sure to stay with you.
Several other scenes stand out, too. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe does an excellent job filming Mikael escaping on the roof of a moving train filled with captured Armenians in the middle of a rainstorm. Grim, pulse quickening, and wrenching, it’s a masterfully crafted scene. And without giving too much away, the ending sequence of the famous Musa Dagh resistance is also beautifully shot and utterly gripping.
With its relevance to the current Syrian refugee crisis, The Promise makes an inarguable case for treating our fellow humans with empathy, grace, and dignity. The love story may seem trivial at times, but as a metaphor for the broader issues of love, loss, and humanity, it effectively serves its purpose. The film ends with a quote by the great Armenian writer William Saroyan that I won’t reveal here, but I will end with one of his others: “The role of art,” according to Saroyan, “is to make a world which can be inhabited.” With their film, then, George and Swicord have done just that; anyone who views the devastating consequences of the hate and inhumanity portrayed here cannot help but to be moved towards inhabiting the world with more compassion and understanding.
The Promise opens today at Bay Area theaters.