Tonight I went to see “The Promise” at the Capitol Theater in Arlington. This was actually my second viewing, as I had the privilege to be a part of a private showing at Brandeis University a few weeks ago. My review here of the movie spans both of those viewings. The first viewing was actually quite emotional for me as this was an epic depiction of many of the salient points of the atrocities that were perpetrated by both the Ottoman government and their successor, the Turkish State, during that period against Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians and other minorities.
To begin, the movie is incredibly beautiful. The scenes of the Bosphorus and the villages were very well done. It was obvious that some of this was CGI, but the up close sets of the streets of Constantinople were very familiar to me. I travelled there as a seven-year-old and stayed there for about two and a half months visiting my maternal grandfather. 1972 didn’t look much different from my memory than the depiction of 1915 in the movie. Just a few less fezzes in ’72. The same teacups were being used and the look of the bazaars and street vendors was spot on. I doubt that Istanbul looks like that anymore, but I may never find out.
Now, for the non-Armenian viewer, you have to understand that the Armenian Genocide that many countries have now recognized, took place from 1915 to 1923. This movie shows the first few months starting on April 24, 1915, when the about 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were rounded up and exterminated and continues through the initial mass deportations and murders of Armenians in their ancient villages. The depiction near the end of the movie of the battle and escape of the Armenians at Musa Dagh ended on Sept 15, 1915, so the bulk of the movie is about five month of events. More atrocities would happen after the period on which the movie concentrates.
All this being said, for an American of Armenian descent at the first viewing this movie forced me to cry my eyes out and ended with catharsis. The story of our grandparents and great-grandparents had finally made it to the big screen. There was so much familiarity in the scenes — the music, the Armenian spoken and even the Turkish spoken. In my youth, the languages in my home were Turkish, Armenian and English. Home was a large soup pot of linguistic expression. So hearing all three languages in one movie was giant tug at my emotional memory.
Putting aside my inner-Armenian, the three or four way love story was a little bit flat. It was the weakest part of the movie. It was too convenient. Christian Bale’s character, Chris, was three-dimensional heroic protagonist throughout the movie. He represented the western press trying to get a story of unimaginable atrocities being perpetrated by a state. The main flaw is that the Chris character becomes two-dimensional whenever Ana is on the screen. You know h0w you felt bad about Dr. Zhivago (Omar Sharif) because the other guy, Victor (Rod Steiger) is a real bastard and worse he gets Lara (Julie Christie)…well Chris was never really bad to Ana, or even to Michael. And that meant you weren’t dragged into hating him and hoping for his demise so that the real lovers would escape together without him. In some ways you are sympathetic to him because maybe Ana should be with him 🙂
Now back to my Armenian-ness: I thought Maral (Angela Sarafyan) looked the part…she was the most Armenian looking of the main characters, being Armenian herself…but the character needed a bit more spice. It would have been good for her to turn out to be a nagging, acerbic Armenian housewife (like Mesrob pointed out) so that Michael could be, in the movie sense, plausibly enchanted by another woman. At least from my point of view, his wandering-eye was out-of-focus 😉
In the same complex this evening, Fast and Furious was playing in one of the other theaters and if you are just there looking for gratuitous violence and action, go see that movie. Terry George didn’t make a movie about action and gore. He wanted a PG-13 movie that was a vehicle for people to be able to consume a story and learn about history.
If you like Christian Bale or Oscar Isaac, you’ll want to see this movie, as both of them are excellent in their roles.
If you want to see a movie that realistically depicts a time in human interaction and scenery and teaches you some history, then go see this movie.
If you like catharsis and ending for the main character who had to endure losing almost everything and then rises above it, then go see this movie.
If you are bothered by humans inhumanity to other humans and want to learn more about event about which you are unfamiliar, then go see this movie.
If you have an Armenian friend, who has talked about his or her family history and you want to understand them better, then go see this movie.
In the end, my strong suggestion is you should go see this movie.