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‘The Promise’ is too trivial a take on Armenian genocide

Horrible human tragedies — unthinkable calamities involving millions of people — dwarf everything else. If you have a movie about the Holocaust, or Stalin’s starvation of the kulaks, or, as in the case of “The Promise,” the Armenian genocide, the historical event takes precedence. It’s hard to care about fictional characters while remembering the real-life horrors experienced by actual people.

For this reason, most of the great films depicting the Holocaust have been based on true stories: “Europa, Europa,” “Schindler’s List,” “The Hiding Place,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Pianist.” There are exceptions (“Son Of Saul”), but the slant toward truth-based stories has been real and necessary. To take the most unimaginable human suffering and combine it with the standard conventions of movie fiction somehow feels discordant, at best, and at worst, grotesque.

“The Promise” is hardly grotesque, and it has good things in it, but by the end, it just feels like a failed manipulation. The reality that it’s trying to present and make us feel — the Ottoman government’s murder of 1.5 million Armenians in the 1910s — remains what it was before, a ghastly fact. The movie doesn’t activate that event through drama, even as our awareness of history keeps us at some distance from the struggles of the fictional characters.

Chalk it up as a respectable attempt. The movie is written and directed by Terry George, who knows his way around political upheaval and sectarian violence. He wrote and directed “Hotel Rwanda” and wrote several screenplays about Northern Ireland’s troubles, including “In the Name of the Father.” For “The Promise” he sets up a fairly interesting situation that might have made for a decent movie set in peacetime.

Oscar Isaac plays an ambitious young pharmacist, working in a tiny Armenian town. He wants to become a doctor, so he becomes engaged to a perfectly nice woman whom he does not love, so he can use the dowry to go to medical school in Istanbul. So guess what happens in Istanbul? Come on, you’ve seen enough movies, you know: He meets a young teacher (Charlotte Le Bon), and he likes her and she likes him. In fact, she is beginning to like him better than her American boyfriend, a swashbuckling, courageous and somewhat alcoholic journalistic (Christian Bale).

So we have two love triangles. The medical student really wants to blow up the engagement and be with his new love, but no, he made a promise. And then, just as we have completely forgotten all about politics, the Turks enter World War I. With that, the Armenians are immediately under siege. All the young men are drafted and sent to work as slave labor. Towns are pillaged, people are systematically executed. It is carnage, death and real historical calamity … And with that in mind, how much do you really care which one of these two women ends up in bed with Oscar Isaac?

Yes, there are some well-made scenes: The medical student escapes from slave labor, dives on top of a train, only to realize that he’s riding on a boxcar filled with Armenians being sent to their doom. As lightning flashes and thunder crashes, he struggles to break the lock on a boxcar, and just as he does, he falls off the train. Fortunately, this happens just as the train is going over a bridge, so he falls into a body of water … And so on. Just like in a movie.

Basically, there was a calculation here that didn’t pan out. The idea was that history would add importance to the fictional story, and the fictional story would add drama to the history. Instead, the opposite happened: The historical context renders the fictional story trivial, while the fictional story keeps the audience removed from the history. We end up with an unimportant movie about important events.

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