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By Richard von Busack April 28, 2017
The TV reporters attending last Friday's opening of The Promise were claiming that this was the first movie made about the Armenian genocide; the statement was later corrected as the first Hollywood movie about it. It's neither the first good movie nor the first bad movie about it, as one notes below.
Watching The Promise-it played at Cinequest-a person who knew nothing about the Armenian holocaust could learn about the murder of anywhere from 1-2 million people under the cover of World War I. These civilians were wiped out by the Turkish soldiers of the Ottoman Empire, in ways which anticipated the grander-scale liquidations to come in Nazi Germany and Stalin's USSR.
For mass appeal, director and co-writer Peter George (Hotel Rwanda) frames this real-life tragedy as a love triangle between a hard-drinking reporter Yankee reporter Chris Myers (Christian Bale, as remote as Mount Ararat itself), his lover and illustrator Ana (Charlotte Le Bon)-Parisienne but "still true-blue Armenian"-and, lastly, Mikhael Boghosian (Oscar Isaacs). He's a Turkish-born Armenian from a family of apothecaries who comes to Constantinople to be a medical student: the proceeds paid for by the dowry of his pale fiancￃﾩ (Angela Sarafyan).
Chris leaves to report on the initial massacres, and gets away a hairsbreadth in front of mounted Turkish troops-a potential for action that didn't really pay off visually. In the meantime, a church service seems to hallow the forbidden love of Ana and the affianced Mikhael; it also gives George a chance to cross cut to a massacre, a la the christening/gang purge in The Godfather. Trying to get an avuncular friend out of the military prison, Mikhael himself is jailed and sent off to work as a slave laborer on a railway of death in the Taurus Mountains.
The tale sprawls like the Ottoman Empire itself. The locations-rugged parts of Spain and Portugal-are attractively shot by Javier Aguirresarobe (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), the film's highlight being a ride on a hell-train, fiery red in the darkness and the rain, packed with Armenian prisoners; Mikhael, escaping his captors, clings to the back. Also reasonably thrilling is the climax, a guerrilla war at the mountain called Musa Dagh.
The script here is more than problematic, uneasy with levity ("Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder," says Myers, telling a joke already centuries old in 1915). It's ready for mawkishness. Says a prisoner: "I was a clown in the circus, and I made children laugh." Jerry Lewis's The Day the Clown Cried is avenged! Sinister Germans sing "Deutschland Uber Alles" to remind us that the sultan was in bed with the kaiser.
As an example of UNICEF movie-making, The Promise is scarcely middling. During the rescue of a group of orphans, there's not a memorable face among the kids. George doesn't want to be overtly sentimental even while dealing with this too-lean to be David Lean material.
Turkey's denial of the massacre has hindered the telling of this story. Franz Werfel's best-selling novel about Musa Dagh was in and out of development for decades, finally adapted into an obscure movie in the 1980s. Compare The Promise with Atom Egoyan's cagey and learned Ararat (2002), a meta-film speculating about the morality-let alone the usefulness-of turning a holocaust into an entertainment. Like The Promise, Ararat was booked at Armenian neighborhoods of our state-it was probably the first and the last Egoyan movie to play Fresno. At the time, a colleague of Armenian descent told me that Ararat summed up for her the nested, contradictory qualities of an Armenian folktale in stories that often begin, "Once upon a time, there was and was not. ..."
We get our share of castigation as Americans in The Promise-"How wonderful it must be to go back to your American home and report," Chris is told. It's fit for Americans to enjoy our own luck. Thanks to the viciousness of the sultan, the U.S. were the heirs to a remarkable nation of businessmen, artists, writers and directors...and Kim Kardashian, too, but that's the way it goes. On the other hand, considering our refusal to aid Syrian refugees, it may be early to bask in self-congratulation.