In the early 1900s, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians lived within the borders of the dying Ottoman Empire, led by what is now modern Turkey. The Ottomans had annexed a large portion of Armenia as far back as 1555 but allowed the people to generally govern themselves, until political entanglements within the empire and European complexities and alliances of World War I led to untold tragedy.
In 1915, when the Ottomans perceived that the ethnic Armenians within their borders supported the Russians rather than the empire and its alliance with the central European powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary), the government ordered what is now believed to be their extermination, a genocide.
Terry George, director and co-writer (with Robin Swicord) of “The Promise,” is no stranger to the theme of injustice and genocide. George won an Oscar, with Keir Pearson, for writing 2004’s “Hotel Rwanda.” Here, George returns to the lesser-known first genocide of the 20th century — still contested and denied by Turkey — when the Ottoman Empire tried to exterminate the ethnic Armenians within its borders.
In this historical drama, Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) becomes engaged to Maral (Angela Sarafyan) and with her dowry is able to apply to medical school in Constantinople. He bids his mother, Marta (Shohreh Aghdashloo), farewell and promises Maral and her father that he will return to marry her.
In the city, Mikael stays with his uncle and there meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a dance instructor and an Armenian who has lived in Paris, and her boyfriend, an American reporter, Chris (Christian Bale). Their friendship develops, and Mikael falls in love with Ana as World War I erupts.
It is not a good time for their romance. Mikael’s promise to Maral weighs on his conscience, and while Chris’ journalist eyes capture the bigger picture, Ana feels guilty about her feelings for Mikael.
Mikael avoids conscription because of his studies but when he tries to intercede for his uncle who has been arrested, Mikael is sent to a prison camp, where he is detained with other Armenians who are being systematically murdered. Mikael escapes and makes his way back to his village, his promise heavy on his heart.
I have met Isaac and I am a fan of his nuanced performances. He carries off the lead well, even in the shadow of Academy-Award-winning actor Bale.
In this lush production that is meant to engage our emotions and teach us about a genocide where the perpetrators won and the government has never made reparations or even admitted what happened, I was left wanting more. I wanted justice.
Any filmmaker takes a chance on an original historical drama, especially when it is based on actual events rather than depicting the stories of actual people. Nor is “The Promise” based on a classic historical novel as “Doctor Zhivago” was. Despite the excellent casting and its lush production qualities, as well as its thematic timeliness, the film may struggle to find an audience because the audience doesn’t know the context well enough to care (which says a lot about the study of world history in schools).
However, if we permit it, “The Promise” allows us to imagine what it was like in a place and time far away, where a government perpetrated mass killings while most of the world was looking elsewhere, despite articles appearing in the American press. The only actual historical person featured in the film is Henry Morgenthau Sr. (James Cromwell), U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Morgenthau warns officials of the consequences of their actions, consequences that never came.
In the current political climate in the United States, the film is important and its themes resonate a century after the events it portrays: Intolerance, violence, scapegoating, racism, nationalism, ethnic cleansing, warmongering, assault on freedom of the press, refugees, and persecution based on religion all sound too familiar.
“The Promise” reminds us that we, too, as believers in peacemaking, have promises to keep with miles to go before we sleep while our leaders senselessly shake their nuclear sabers against the night sky.
[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]