Saturday, May 6, 2017

Classics: A Review of The Promise By Lauren Ennis

In the wake of tragedy we are consistently reminded of the importance of remembering and learning from traumatic events. Yet, all too often, the greatest tragedies and atrocities in history are ignored or forgotten as time passes. Such is the case of one of the most horrifying events of the twentieth century; the Armenian Genocide. The genocide lasted from 1915 to 1917 and ultimately claimed the lives of 1.5 million Armenians and other Christian minorities within the Ottoman Empire, who were systematically rounded up, imprisoned and executed by the Ottoman government. While this tragedy later provided the blueprint for Hitler’s Final Solution, the genocide has received remarkably little attention from popular media. Although a select few films chronicling the genocide have been released in Europe, Hollywood is only now releasing its first production focusing upon the Armenian Genocide; The Promise. The film relates the events of 1915 to 1917 through the eyes of a group of friends living in Constantinople (now Istanbul) at the eve of World War I. Over the course of the film, each of the central characters is drawn into the events of the genocide with devastating consequences. Despite its difficult subject matter, The Promise is at its heart a testament to the resilience of both individuals and a nation, even in the face of the most unspeakable adversity.

The stuff that inspiring tales are made of
The story begins in the Armenian village of Cirun as aspiring physician Mikael (Oscar Isaac) reluctantly agrees to an arranged marriage at the urging of his parents. Using the dowry money from his engagement, he travels to Constantinople in hopes of earning his medical degree. He is dazzled by the Ottoman capital and the modern life he enjoys there, even as political tensions between Armenians and Turks continue to rise. Conflict enters the tale when he meets and is instantly smitten with his cousins’ beautiful governess, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who is already involved with talented and passionate, but alcoholic, American reporter, Chris (Christian Bale). Just as the romantic triangle reaches its boiling point, however, World War I breaks out with the genocide following less than a year later. Over the course of the film, each of the characters is faced with impossible decisions and unspeakable horror at every turn as they struggle to survive in a world that is crashing down all around them. In spite of its innumerable tragedies, however, the plot contains triumphs of the human spirit as the central characters fight for justice and freedom without compromising their integrity or humanity.

While it is shocking that Hollywood is only now approaching this subject over one hundred years after the Armenian Genocide, The Promise, is a more than successful first effort. Praised by historians for its accuracy, the film chronicles the progression of the genocide with unflinching honesty. Rather than portraying the characters as possessing unrealistic foresight, which would be more befitting of a modern viewer reflecting on history, the film instead remains within historical context by highlighting the ways in which ordinary people all too often ignore or fail to recognize the warning signs surrounding them. The film also relates how the Ottoman Empire concealed its atrocities under the guise of ‘war-time evacuation’, and the ways in which the outside world chose to ignore blatant red flags surrounding the fictitious evacuation. While some critics have criticized the film’s focus upon its fictional characters, I found that by relating the events from the characters’ perspectives the film infused its story with poignancy and humanized the historical events it portrayed. Regardless of whether or not Mikael, Ana, or Chris actually existed, their inclusion in the plot reminds viewers of the real people whose relationships, country, and lives were upended and destroyed. This personalized approach allows audiences to gain insight into the individual tragedies and triumphs experienced by the Armenian people and enables the story to resonate on a personal as well as political or historical level. Thus, the film captures the emotion and sweep of the greatest historical epics while still remaining true to history.

Some of the best reporting this side of Woodward and Bernstein
The stellar cast bring the events of the Armenian Genocide to life with a depth, intelligence, and emotion that ensures that the historical events will resonate with modern audiences. Oscar Isaac infuses Mikael with an idealism, earnestness, and resilience that calls to mind Omar Sharif’s performance in the classic epic Doctor Zhivago. Christian Bale brings a depth and nuance to his role as the courageous, but flawed, Chris that captures both his character’s heroic passion and inner demons. Charlotte Le Bron’s Ana is an alluring combination of elegant charm, warmth, and steely grit, making her a truly endearing heroine. The supporting cast lend apt support with Marwan Kenzari and Shohreh Aghdashloo earning particular note in their roles as Mikael’s conflicted Turkish friend, Emre, and Mikael’s overbearing but well-intentioned mother, Marta.

Following in the tradition of such acclaimed historical dramas as Hotel Rwanda and Schindler’s List, The Promise highlights what is one of modern history’s most devastating and forgotten events. The film portrays the events of the genocide in a way that highlights the horror of the atrocities committed by the Ottoman Empire, while still paying homage to the resilience and courage of the Armenian people and those who aided them. Through its well written script and superb performances the film relates its tragic tale with an accuracy and humanity that earn it a place amongst Hollywood’s best epics. In a world in which atrocities and human rights violations are still committed each day, this film serves as both a call to remembrance and a dire warning for the present.

I'm not gonna cry...sniff..I'm not gonna cry...

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