Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Heart of darkness


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Filmmaker Terry George tackled a heartbreaking tragedy in his Oscar-honored 2004 drama Hotel Rwanda. The film humanized the savagery and astonishing loss of life that occurred when one tribal group systematically slaughtered men, women and children from a rival tribe. The world, including the American government (under then-President Bill Clinton), largely stood by as blood flowed across an important African nation. The core of the film's appeal lies in the heroic actions of a previously non-political hotel manager played with humor and pluck by African American actor Don Cheadle.

Now George (with co-screenwriter Robin Swicord) returns with an equally tragic and equally misunderstood subject: the savage 1914 slaughter of approximately 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children by authorities and soldiers of the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor to today's modern Turkish state.

Like his earlier plunge into the heart of human darkness, George takes us to a palpably real land, with fabulous vistas, beautiful mountain ranges, peopled by tribes who seem to feel no common bond of humanity. The ruling Turks were mostly Muslim, while the Armenians were mostly Christian. The good thing, but the tricky thing, about The Promise is that at the core of the film is a vibrant, confusing romantic triangle among Michael, an idealistic young medical student (a passionate Oscar Isaac); a lovely young woman, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon); and Ana's boyfriend, the studly American photojournalist Chris (star character Christian Bale).

While actual foreplay and lovemaking take a distinct backseat to the growing violence that engulfs the characters, the romantic dalliances will distract the more martial-minded from the film's real mission: to make clear that this terrible moment in history had disastrous repercussions. The Armenian genocide would be cited as precedent and excuse by no less a practitioner of terror against civilians than Adolph Hitler.

The Promise can also be faulted for a plot that is so dense that even attentive viewers can be excused for wondering, What's going on here? It's one of the few times when a prologue or pre-film scroll would have been helpful for history-attention-deficit American audiences. To be successful, dramatic films must accomplish an orchestration of emotion, which mostly eludes the makers of The Promise.

The film does allow us the pleasure of observing the continued evolution of the Central American-born, handsome lead actor Oscar Isaac into a movie star. Fans of the Coen Bros.' off-kilter resume may remember Isaac as the early-60s folksinger in 2011's Inside Llewyn Davis. He demonstrated a knack for folkie scenes along with a gift for odd Coen-style comedy riffs where he competed for laughs with a scene-stealing alley cat.

A true test for The Promise will come when it hits the Castro Theatre calendar. It should be paired with a great David Lean history epic: Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago. Whatever quibbles history purists might have with Lean, there's no question that he maintained a crystal-clear narrative line. Even history novices knew exactly what was going on. In The Promise, there was a whole chapter involving a firing squad execution where I was truly confused about where we were in the story.

This is a film for which the MPAA ratings only hint at the levels of historical tragedy and human misery: PG-13 for material including war atrocities, violence, disturbing images, and some sexuality.

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