Every now and then a film comes along that is so powerfully driven and thought-provoking in its scope that words cannot even express the impression it leaves behind. And yet, as a film critic, it’s my job to put it into words so here goes. This week I had the good fortune to view The Promise, starring Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon. Upon watching the movie trailer, I sort of dismissed it in my head as just another weeping war epic with a love triangle, a la Pearl Harbor, that may or may not be mediocre in its storytelling. However, I do admire the work of both Isaac and Bale and was willing to give it a chance. I was not prepared for a film that would completely break my heart in a way few modern films ever manage to do.
The Promise is set in 1914 Turkey during the last legs of The Ottoman Empire and depicts a subject I must confess I didn’t know very much about: the Armenian Genocide that claimed the lives of 1.5 million people. Isaac plays Mikael, a young Armenian medical student who travels to Constantinople to better himself using the dowry provided by his intended bride from his village (Maral). He makes her a promise at the beginning of the film that he will return to her once his education is complete and the two will be wed at their parents’ wishes.
However, once in Constantinople, Mikael quickly falls in love with another Armenian beauty named Ana (Le Bon), who serves as his younger cousins’ tutor. Having studied many years in Paris, Ana is vibrant, intelligent and artistic – all the things his betrothed is not. But alas, Ana is also attached to Chris Myers (Bale), an American Associated Press war correspondent who’s keen on reporting the atrocities of the Ottoman Empire despite the personal toll. I may have romanticized his role a little bit because I studied journalism, but Chris is a fascinating character because of his dedication to being a watch dog and exposing things that many would not be willing to witness, let alone report. The two seem to be a bit of a mismatch, and it becomes obvious to the viewer that Ana would prefer to be romantically linked to someone perhaps a little more sensitive, someone like Mikael.
However, this love triangle is put somewhat on the back-burner as more important events erupt around them. When Turkey decides to ally with Germany during World War I, the Turks’ cruel, ugly racist underbelly emerges. It suddenly becomes acceptable to actively persecute the country’s minorities, most notably the Armenians, as a result of a crumbling, frustrated Empire in a war they perhaps had no business entering. They systematically go about using the Armenians as soldiers and laborers in work camps and then slaughtering the villages’ women, elders and children after their men are no longer around to protect them.
To the rest of the world (and in the days long, long before the Internet made world news more immediately widespread), the Empire reported they were merely “relocating” the Armenians. What’s perhaps even more disturbing than the events depicted in the film is the fact that to this day, Turkey still denies any of it ever happened under the Ottoman Empire. At least Germany somewhat owns up to the horrid things they did to the Jews under their Nazi regime. How anyone can be so cruel for no apparent reason is beyond that of my comprehension.
While there is plenty of subject material surrounding the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust, I can’t remember ever seeing another film about that of the Armenians (though I am aware that others do exist). This is a people not to be forgotten to the annals of history or war, and kudos to the filmmakers for making this film and shedding some light on a subject many would choose to ignore. Rated PG-13 for war atrocities, violence and mild sexuality, this film does contain some truly jarring images (the kind that will haunt this viewer long after) that I would not recommend for anyone under the age of 13. Uncomfortable subject material is nothing new to Terry George, who partially wrote and directed The Promise. George also directed Hotel Rwanda and In the Name of the Father.
I do not understand all the critics saying unkind words about the film, as I found it hypnotically captivating. The performances are convincing, and I liked that they largely used actors I was unfamiliar with, many of whom who were authentically Armenian. The cinematography is breathtaking, as every scene unfolds and tells a little more of the story with a beautiful backdrop (though of course none of it seems to have actually been filmed in Turkey). I also found the song used in the ending credits especially poignant – it’s also called “The Promise” and is surprisingly sung by none other than Chris Cornell (front man of Soundgarden).
It may crash and burn at the box office, but I promise you it’s different than any of the other films currently playing. And in an era of Trumps and talk of border walls and refugee bans, I think something like this should almost be required viewing. If you can in any good conscience still support refugee bans after seeing what war and hate does to innocents like the Armenians, may God have mercy on your soul. The Promise uses this quote right before the ending credits that also leaves a haunting, profound effect long after you’ve vacated the theater:
“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” – William Saroyan
Want to see The Promise and judge for yourself? Click on the images below to buy your tickets now, and be sure to come back and tell us what you thought!