ON THE SILVER SCREEN: ARMENIAN GENOCIDE FILM HAS POTENTIAL, BUT FALLS SHORT (THE PROMISE)

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By Liz Alper, ECM film reviewer

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April 10, 2017 (San Diego) - The Armenian genocide was a horrific event in September of 1915 in which Turkish forces (then still under the control of the Ottoman Empire) slaughtered thousands of Armenian men, women and children.  Director Terry George attempted to put this tragedy on screen in The Promise, starring Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale and Charlotte Le Bon.

As mentioned, the film uses fictional characters to tell the story of the Armenian genocide.  Mikael Pogosian (Oscar Isaac) is an Armenian medical student studying in Constantinople.  When Turkey enters the war, every Turkish man must enlist.  Remember the draft in our own country during both world wars?  Same concept here, just a different country.  Mikael at first evades the draft thanks to his friend and fellow med student Emre (Marwan Kenzari), who is Turkish.  See, Armenians can't evade the draft, even if they have the med school excuse, but Turks can.  Ahmed uses it for Mikael to get him out.  Eventually, however, Emre's father finds out he did this and Mikael is forced into service.

Before then, however, he meets a beautiful Armenian woman, Anna (Charlotte Le Bon) and her American boyfriend, Associated Press reporter Chris Myers (Christian Bale), who is reporting on the war.  You can probably guess what happens.  Mikael and Ana fall in love and though Chris has a suspicion of what's going on, no fight or confrontation ever actually happens because he considers Mikael a friend.  You're probably saying "Uh.  Okay, then."  Don't worry; I did too.

While Mikael is in the army, a completely random, out-of-left-field incident happens where a crazed soldier blows up an entire camp of Armenian soldiers and Mikael becomes a deserter.  He finds his way back to his home village, reunites with his mother and father and gets married to the woman he was betrothed to before he left for Constantinople.  

Later on, he reunites with Ana and Chris and the three of them embark on a quest to get Armenian refugees to the French marines.  On the way, they come to an Armenian town that has been wiped out by Turkish forces.  They, the refugees and the misplaced citizens fight the Turks until they can get to the ocean where the French are waiting.  There, a cannonball hits the refugee boat and Ana falls off and drowns in the ocean, with no lame happy ending like in Far and Away where the camera zooms out and in on Tom Cruise and he comes back to life.  Thank God. 

Right off the bat, the film shows off its choppy, unorganized editing.  The film skipped from scene to scene to scene suddenly with no explanation, leaving audiences to piece together themselves what happened.  Obviously, a film can't explain everything, but these cuts were so sudden. 

That's not to say that this film isn't a good film.  It was hard to get into at first, but once the journey starts, the emotion and pain will hit you.  At one point, Mikael and Chris come across hundreds of Armenians dead in a forest, including Mikael's wife and mother (the mother is alive, but later dies).  And the ending is excellent and tear-worthy; during World War II in 1942 in Watertown, Massachusetts, where Mikael has settled and opened a medical practice, one of the orphans, a child of the genocide, gets married to an American marine and Mikael is her adoptive father and they both share a dance.  All of the orphans of the genocide are at the wedding.  It was a touching moment and in a way, the film did get its happy ending.

Chris...was his character necessary?  He's a relatively minor character, but he does become slightly relevant when Turkish soldiers capture him.  He is later released.  But I just didn't see how his character is relevant.

The film does do an excellent job at showing the horrors of war and the pain these people suffered.  And Oscar Isaac is a very talented actor.  So if you go and see this film for nothing else, go for that and try to ignore the terrible editing.

The bright spot of the film was a scene where Mikael is hiding in a bush at night.  He looks a little like Douglas Fairbanks Sr., my favorite actor.  Other than that and the climax of the film, I wasn't a huge fan of this one, though I did appreciate the appropriately diverse cast.

An Open Road Films distribution.  Directed by Terry George.  Written by Terry George and Robin Swincord.  Music by Gabriel Yared.  Cast:  Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Rade Šerbedžija, Marwan Kenzari.  Runtime: 132 min. Rating:  PG-13