Relying exclusively on visual imagery and sound effects, “Return to the Promised Land” is a 1991 docudrama about the efforts of one family to build a new home in the harsh expanse of northern Armenia. Original pic offers a powerful vision of a humanly rich but socially impoverished country, but its wordless account and slow pace restrict its appeal to the fest circuit and specialized venues.
Film begins with a b&w video of a mass demonstration in Yerevan, following the devastating earthquake of Dec. 7, 1988.
Shot with a restless hand-held camera, sequence shows the casualties, wrecked buildings and thousands of homeless people wandering in the streets crying for help.
Docudrama then switches abruptly to color as it chronicles in meticulous detail the efforts of one displaced family to build a new life, after being persecuted and driven away from its home.
Razmig, his pregnant wife and his young daughter literally begin from scratch. It is fascinating to watch how a barren land, in the dead of winter, transforms through months of excruciatingly hard work into green fields.
This second (and major) part serves as counterpoint to the first, not only because it is in color. In the first gloomy sequence, the emphasis is on disaster, death, hopelessness and displacement. In contrast, the dominant motif in second part is new life–birth, taming the land and regeneration. Pic takes a cyclical approach, following the farming family for a whole year (through the four seasons).
It is one of docudrama’s marvels that the camera remains unobtrusive–the silent characters appear to be completely un-self-conscious of its presence. Moreover, sparing close-ups of family members often reveal expressionless faces. The characters don’t emote; no melodramatics are imposed on the material.
Pic’s major innovation is Avet Terterian’s music, which provides an approximation of naturalistic sound. In one highlight, a whole symphony is created out of the natural sounds of the farmers’ animals. In another poignant scene, birth of a farmer’s baby is conveyed entirely through sound, without any visuals.
Most of pic zeroes in on one nuclear family, but at the end the town becomes a social community during a performance of a traveling troupe of musicians and acrobats. It is the one collective event that pulls the town’s members out of their isolation. Yet just as the tone becomes peaceful and optimistic, director Katchatrian switches gears again and ends on a pessimistic note.
Though without dialogue or conventional drama, pic is not shapeless–its specific form derives from the selectivity of the material and its editing.