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'The Promise' of Love, Murder and Survival

Apr. 24, 2017
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An epic on a scale reminiscent of Dr. Zhivago, The Promise is a love story wrapped in the twisted threads of history. It’s the kind of movie Hollywood used to make more often and has seldom made as powerfully and effectively in recent years. The Promise is a love story, an emotional quadrangle against events from the World War I era less familiar to the general public than Zhivago’s Bolshevik Revolution, the Armenian Genocide.>

The Promise

Oscar Isaac

Charlotte Le Bon

Directed by Terry George

Rated PG-13

The protagonist, Mikael (Oscar Isaac), is an apothecary’s son in a provincial Turkish town on the eve of World War I. He is Armenian, one of several minority groups living with growing ethnic tensions in the Turkish Empire. He dreams of studying medicine in the capital, Constantinople, and finds the tuition money through betrothal to Maral (Angela Sarafyan), a nice village girl with a dowry in an economic marital arrangement common in traditional societies. “We will grow to love each other,” she says.>

But the human heart is more unpredictable than war and politics. Once in Constantinople, he meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a worldly Armenian artist from Paris. They begin to fall in love—but she is the lover of Chris (Christian Bale), the American AP correspondent in Turkey. And Mikael made a promise of marriage that must be kept for his and Maral’s families.

The Promise holds together the emotional tangle of their lives in the face of growing calamity. Credit Isaac’s deeply felt performance as the story’s center of gravity, as well as Le Bon’s more subtle emotional responses. Bale plays an otherwise swaggering man willing to be cuckolded for love. Sarafyan’s performance can be easily overlooked but epitomizes the place of a woman in a patriarchal society with few choices and much faith.

Oscar-winning writer-director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) came to The Promise knowing how to dramatize mass murder. The politics behind the Armenian Genocide, in which the Turkish regime killed 1.5 million of its Armenian subjects under the guise of war zone evacuations, are left to implication. What George shows are the berserker mobs raging in the streets, chanting racist epithets as they smash shop windows and attack people for looking different; the long files of men, women and children being marched to their death in the desert; the slave labor of able-bodied men on a railroad line built under the supervision of Turkey’s German allies. If it seems a bit like any number of Holocaust movies, it’s because the Armenian Genocide closely resembles the Shoah. The parallels are striking.

While the main characters are fictional or composites, The Promise incorporates several historical figures. U.S. ambassador Henry Morgenthau (James Cromwell) is shown in an angry meeting with Turkey’s Interior Minister Talaat Pasha (Aaron Neil), perhaps the most evil among the architects of the genocide; and Komitas Vartabed (Shnork Sargsyan), the Armenian composer-priest-musicologist, is seen performing a concert chilling in its otherworldly intensity. After the time depicted in The Promise, Morgenthau wrote about the genocide, Talaat was assassinated in Berlin by a child of genocide victims and Komitas survived torture and imprisonment but never wrote another note of music.

A more austere filmmaker than George might have avoided melodrama, yet tears are inescapable as destruction sweeps away the lives of so many individuals. George and co-writer Robin Swicord accurately represent the time and place and avoid anachronisms. Likewise, the soundtrack by System of a Down’s Serj Tankian and Soundgarden’s Chris Connell, which draws from traditional Armenian music.

“Our revenge will be to survive,” Ana tells Mikael, and while many of The Promise’s characters perish, some make their way out of the open grave their homeland had become. The mass murdering tyrants of the last century—from Talaat to Pol Pot—slaughtered millions in one twisted scheme after another to create new worlds on the ashes of the old. In every case, survivors bore witness to tell true stories that should never be forgotten.

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