Reviewed by David Baronti
In one of its many documentaries, Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’ a female Polish survivor is quoted as saying ‘Don’t ask me why Auschwitz happened. There is no why, only was. Auschwitz just was.’
To an extent, anyone hoping to find out why the Ottoman Empire decided to turn on one of its own ethnic minorities, in this case Armenians, during WWI won’t find any answers in director Terry George’s The Promise either. The fact is that this particular pogrom predates the Jewish Holocaust and may have accounted for the lives of up to 1.5 million people; systematically worked, marched, shot, starved or simply beaten to death. Yet the event is seemingly all but expunged from history.
The Promise features Oscar Isaac (The Two Faces of January) Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale. Isaac plays Michael, an Armenian medicine man who accepts a dowry to marry a village elder’s daughter. He “promises” to use the money to undertake his medical training at college in faraway Constantinople in order to improve their prospects.
Instead, once in Constantinople, Michael finds himself being targeted by Turkish Nationalists for being Armenian whilst also finding the time to become involved with another woman, Ana (played by Le Bon). Bale plays Michael, a passionate if under-used American reporter desperately trying to expose the horrors of the Armenian plight to the rest of the world. He is also entangled with Ana.
George appears to have gone to great pains never directly to imply that the state targeted Armenians on religious grounds. In fact no reason is really offered. It is up to the audience, if they don’t already know, to ascertain by several scenes of religious observance that the Armenians are not Muslims, with their practices being more akin to Greek or Russian orthodoxy. Therefore, those who know their history will be aware that the Russians and the Turks had been at each other’s throats since the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856. Old grievances die hard.
George has to include an obligatory cattle truck scene and forced labour camp, complete with skeletal inmates, in order to enforce the point that yes this kind of thing went on long before the Nazi’s turned up mate.
The film’s best line is given to Le Bon’s Ana, when a devastated Michael breaks down after his family has been murdered and calls for revenge. Ana, sensing the danger of such brave but foolish words for once passionately responds, ‘Revenge? Our revenge will be to survive, that will be our revenge’. At last they realise that they are being systematically exterminated.
Ultimately The Promise is a convoluted love triangle (or quadruple if you include Michael’s doomed future wife; oblivious to almost everything going on around her) that also attempts to throw some light on a forgotten pogrom which will upset some for digging up old dirt and dissatisfy others for not going far enough to apportion blame and, at 134 minutes far too long.