The Promise (Open Road Films, PG-13)

The stories of Mikael, Ana, and Chris give the audience a human connection to help them relate to the historical and political events portrayed on screen.

History is full of horrific events, some of which are well known to the general public, and others of which are not. The Armenian genocide sadly falls into the latter category, perhaps in part because the Turkish government denies that it even happened, and leaders of many other countries (including the United States) are unwilling to call it a genocide. That state of affairs is certain to change if Terry George’s epic drama The Promise gets the audience it deserves.

The Promise begins in 1914, in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) is working in his family’s apothecary shop in a small village in southern Turkey (given the fictional name of “Siroun”), where Christians and Moslems have coexisted peacefully for generations. Mikael yearns to attend medical school in Constantinople, eventually obtaining the money to do so by becoming engaged to Maral (Angela Sarafyan), a young woman from his village.

Mikael becomes a star pupil at the medical school while also enjoying the vibrant cultural and social life of the capital of the Ottoman Empire. He becomes best friends with a Turkish student, Emre (Marwan Kenzari), and falls in love with a young Armenian woman, Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon); unfortunately, she is already the romantic partner of American journalist Chris Myers (Christian Bale). The stories of Mikael, Ana, and Chris form the narrative spine of the film, giving the audience a human connection to help them relate to the historical and political events portrayed on screen.

When the Ottoman Empire officially enters the war, latent anti-Armenian sentiments burst to the surface, resulting first in personal harassment of Armenians and destruction of Armenian shops. Then the government begins arresting Armenian men, executing some and forcing others to serve as laborers, while sending women and children to into the desert, where they will die. Chris reports on the massacres, while Mikael is forced to labor on a railway being constructed in the mountains, escaping only to find that the train on which he has hitched a ride is full of Armenians on their way to being “resettled” in the desert.

And it gets worse: At one point, Mikael comes across the bodies of people from his village who have been summarily executed by the Turks; the only survivors are his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who has been seriously wounded, and a young girl who was somehow overlooked. Eventually, the three main characters become involved in a mission to help evacuate orphans to the coast, serve in the defense of Musa Dagh, and aid in the rescue of over 4,000 Armenians by the French navy.

The screenplay by George and Robin Swicord is carefully constructed to include many historical figures and key incidents, and title cards supply context and basic facts about the genocide (the most important of which is that an estimated 1.5 million Armenians perished). Javier Aguirresarobe’s beautiful cinematography helps establish the epic scope of the story, as does the amazing score by Gabriel Yared. Production design by Benjamin Fernandez celebrates the vibrant life of Armenians in Turkey, both in the cities and in the countryside, prior to World War I.

The Promise has been criticized for placing too much emphasis on a soapy love triangle, but I’m willing to overlook that aspect, because a romantic story can offer viewers a way into events they might otherwise reject as foreign. You don’t suppose Dr. Zhivago became an international hit because everyone was interested in the details of Russian politics, do you? No, viewers were drawn in by the love story of Zhivago and Lara, and in the course of watching the film may have learned something about the political history of Russia, as well. In the same way, the story of Mikael, Chris, and Ana is a hook to bring people to the history and politics detailed in The Promise, giving them an emotional connection to events with which they may be entirely unfamiliar. And who knows—some of those people will be interested enough to read up on the subject and spread the word, and perhaps some day this story will be as well known as the Holocaust.

If you are an imdb.com user, you may have noticed The Promise has received extremely low user ratings, many entered before the film had been shown in public. Pay them no mind: Like the 2016 Ghostbusters, The Promise has been the victim of a smear campaign, this one apparently originating on a Turkish message board. I guess it’s encouraging that a film can raise such strong feelings, even if they are expressed inappropriately, but there’s no reason you should allow such an obvious propaganda effort to influence your choice about whether you want to see this film. | Sarah Boslaugh

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