The Ottoman Lieutenant, more a romance than a reckoning with history, never quite brings itself to admit that the Armenian Genocide actually happened — instead, it presents the Ottoman Empire in the era of the First World War as a land torn generically by war, one whose people at least had the good fortune to be tended to by Hera Hilmar’s plucky American nurse, who will treat anyone, regardless of which god they serve. Much of that film concerns her dueling suitors, and the final shot is a howler: In the highlands near Mt. Ararat, a parade line of wounded and dying Turks and Armenians lie on their gurneys as the camera cranes out and Hilmar dashes purposefully from one to the next. Civilization has crumbled, faiths are clashing and the Turks have set in motion the extermination of some 1.5 million Armenians, but the movie urges us not to worry — she’s got this.
Nobody’s got the situation under control in The Promise, a handsome but lumpish film whose creators are too honest to lie to us about individual heroism. George and Robin Swicord have also built their screenplay around three conflicted lovers, but here the history overwhelms the romance. Nobody in The Promise has to point out that their love problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, because that crazy world is forever trying to kill them and everyone they care about. Rather than sweat over who’s crushing on whom, the protagonists endeavor to survive, offer aid to refugees and let the world know the truth about a campaign of mass murder that, to this day, the Turkish government still won’t officially acknowledge.
Oscar Isaac stars as Michael, an Armenian man who in 1914 leaves his village in the mountains to study medicine in Constantinople. When the killing starts, and Turks are attacking Armenians in the streets (a scene reminiscent of George’s Hotel Rwanda), it takes him agonizing minutes to bring down an assailant. He’s assisted in this by Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an Armenian ballerina, who chucks cabbages at the killers’ heads. The movie’s an epic, but the characters are human-scaled; their desperate actions are refreshingly un-aestheticized.
Called to arms in the late reels, Michael can’t bring himself to shoot the Turks advancing on an encampment of Armenian refugees. Instead, he dedicates himself to treating the wounded. Principled pacifism here is as noble and moving as it is in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, but George handles it in just heartbeats — and without the sense that he’s aroused by the violence the pacifist rejects.
Read more: http://www.villagevoice.com/film/the-promise-sets-hollywood-technique-against-the-terror-of-the-armenian-genocide-9887292