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‘The Promise’: Telling the untold story of the Armenian genocide

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An important historical drama featuring excellent performances deserves to be seen.

Coinciding with the release of the new film, The Promise, Professor Tanam Akcam of Clark University has announced the recent discovery of a document of some significance. Long buried within the personal archives of deceased Armenian Catholic priest, Krikor Guerguerian, it is a telegram dated July 4, 1915 and affixed with the official Ottoman letterhead. On it is a single question asking the recipient of the telegram to verify whether or not the Armenians listed as being deported from the country had been eliminated.

While it may not sound like much, this single slip of paper actually represents one of the few existing pieces of physical evidence of the state sponsored genocide of Armenian Christians that took place between 1914 and 1917.

Such documentation is important because, to this day, the Turkish government stringently refuses to admit to any wrongdoing. They have, in fact, made it a punishable crime in Turkey to publicly suggest that what occurred was anything more than a regrettable instance of collateral war damage.

The makers of The Promise are having nothing to do with such acts of denial. Set against the backdrop of the rise of the nationalist movement known as The Young Turks, the movie follows a small group of friends and lovers as they try to survive the officially sanctioned ethnic cleansing of the Armenian people.

It begins with small-town apothecary Mikael (Oscar Isaac) accepting a betrothal to kindly local girl, Maral (Angela Sarafyan), so that he can use her dowry to pay for medical college. Before setting off to Constantinople, Mikael makes a promise to Maral that he will return to her after earning his degree. However, quicker than you can say Doctor Zhivago, Mikael is almost immediately entranced by the lovely Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) upon his arrival in the big city. Unfortunately, their dream romance is hindered by the powers-that-be who are just beginning to take steps to rid the country of people like Mikael and Ana.

The problematic relationship is further complicated by the fact that Ana is already involved with Chris (Christian Bale), an American journalist with the Associated Press who is in the region hoping to expose the heinous actions of the Ottomans to the wider world. The only thing more important to Chris than his mission is Ana, to whom he is completely devoted. Quicker than you can say Casablanca, Mikael, Ana, and Chris are involved in a hopeless love triangle while the world around them descends into Hell.

It isn’t long before Mikael is arrested and placed into servitude, while Chris and Ana are forced to go on the run. Quicker than you can say Titanic, each of the lovesick characters find themselves passing through various historical events which more than illustrate the horrors that were occurring at that time. Prisoners are literally worked to death building railroad lines. Dissenters amongst the Turks are placed in front of firing squads. Entire villages of men, women, and children are marched into the desert and either left to starve or simply murdered. While not overly graphic, the film never flinches away from such moments.

Much like Bitter Harvest, the recent film about the mostly untold story of the Holodomor, The Promise hopes its tale of love and endurance will bring wider public awareness to an often overlooked chapter in the bloody history of the 20th century. Director Terry George is no stranger to such efforts, having previously directed Hotel Rwanda, the 2004 film which dealt with the slaughter of countless Tutsis by Rwandan forces. He brings the same sure hand to The Promise as he did that film. The acting is also excellent. While some of the story beats are perfunctory and make obvious callbacks to other better-known films, the actors themselves are almost always engaging, Isaac and Bale in particular.

Alas, despite such strengths, The Promise is unlikely to find much of an audience. Historical dramas are hardly the rage at the moment, so, quicker than you can say Guardians of the Galaxy 2, The Promise will probably disappear from cinemas rather rapidly. Still, the blockbuster season isn’t quite here yet, so it’s not too late to catch The Promise before it’s gone. It’s subject matter worth visiting.

 

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