There have been a paltry few movies about the 1915 Armenian genocide, which has only increased expectations around Fatih Akin’s already buzzy “The Cut.” Budgeted at $21 million, this historical epic-cum-Western about a father looking across the globe for his missing twin daughters had all the makings of a majestic adventure pic, only something odd happened along the way: The script, co-written by vet Mardik Martin, is pedestrian, and the mise-en-scene, striving hard for a classic Hollywood look, lacks grandeur, notwithstanding impressive location work. Akin’s considerable body of fans will likely scratch their heads, and marketing will be problematic.
Presumably the idea of having all the Armenians speak accented English was to increase the pic’s Stateside chances, yet the lines are often so commonplace, and have been heard a thousand times before in so many historical adventures, that the arthouse crowd (Akin’s core) will question why they’re being treated like mainstream viewers. Euro play will prove more lucrative, though here, too, the director’s admirers will find themselves wondering what happened to the energy and psychological acuity of the helmer’s previous films.
Akin clearly wants “The Cut” to be informative, a fine thing considering the ridiculous contesting in some quarters of the genocide’s extent. That’s why intro titles explain the German-Ottoman Empire alliance during WWI, when minorities under the Turks became enemies overnight. But why did this happen? Without at least some hint of why minorities, and Armenians in particular, were falsely considered a threat, “The Cut” turns into an elementary-school history lesson, providing rudimentary facts without connecting any dots.
Mardin, in southeastern Turkey near the Syrian border, is home to the blacksmith Nazaret Manoogian (Tahar Rahim) — note the first name’s Christological significance, since it’ll be coming back. He, his wife Rakel (Hindi Zahra) and school-age twin daughters Lucinee (Dina Fakhoury) and Arsinee (Zein Fakhoury) form a happy family until 1915, when the Armenian round-up hits its height. Nazaret is forced into slave labor building a road in the desert; one day he and his fellow prisoners have their throats slit by Ottoman command, but Mehmet (Bartu Kucukcaglayan) deliberately only wounds his neck. Mehmet’s like the Good Thief, only he’s the one saving Nazaret/Jesus.
The two men hook up with some deserters, and then Nazaret learns that Armenian women and children have been taken to the Ras-al-Ayn camp, a three-day walk away. Curiously, Akin lenses the camp in various shades of color-corrected sand tonalities, and the shot of Nazaret moving through a field of pleading, desperate humanity is rendered so artificial as to suggest a children’s illustration made semi-monochrome to avoid overly strong images. There he finds his sister-in-law, who tells him his wife and sister are dead. Nazaret cradles the expiring woman in his lap, looking like a reverse Pieta in which Jesus holds Mary.
Off he goes with untold reserves of strength, accompanied by electric guitar strains that, combined with the desert landscape, call to mind “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He meets kindly Omar Nasreddin (Makram J. Khoury), the film’s obligatory good Muslim, who hides Nazaret in his soap-making establishment in Aleppo, where he’s joined by fellow Armenian Krikor (Simon Abkarian), one of the film’s many sketchily developed characters.
Jump to November 1918, when the British liberate the city and the remaining Armenians pelt the retreating Turks, but Nazaret casts no stones. Instead he runs into his former apprentice Levon (Shubham Saraf), who tells him his kids are alive: Rakel placed them with a Bedouin family before she died. Nazaret spends the next few years combing various orphanages in Syria and Lebanon until, in 1922, he finds where they were placed, and is told they’re married and in Cuba.
Suffice to say Nazaret goes to Cuba, looked after by kindly barber Hagob Nakashian (Kevork Malikyan); then Florida (where he’s shot at by rednecks); Minneapolis (Moritz Bleibtreu has a silent cameo as a factory owner); and finally North Dakota. Everywhere he goes, whether in the desert, the beach, or the swamps, a convenient conveyance happens along to ensure he reaches his destination, where yet another disappointment awaits.
Akin says “The Cut” forms the tail end of his “Love, Death and the Devil” trilogy, which began with “Head-On” and “The Edge of Heaven.” The earlier two films treated their subjects with nuance and a sense of psychology, getting inside their characters’ heads and making their choices — good or bad — feel like an integral part of who they were. Yet here it seems the director became overwhelmed by the historical epic format, since Nazaret is a simplistic figure with just one motivating force. It worked brilliantly in “The Searchers” and “Seven Men from Now,” but that sort of classic Hollywood structure is probably the most difficult to imitate now without feeling creaky, and “The Cut” definitely feels creaky. In addition, the “Devil” here is a mere cutout Satan, neutering any exploratory questioning of evil.
The production is unquestionably big, though there are times when a few hundred more extras, a la Cecil B. De Mille, would have exponentially increased the film’s power. Akin’s regular d.p., Rainer Klausmann, delivers visuals that are far more epic than in their earlier collaborations, with long shots handsomely reproduced on 35mm using a 40mm lens especially adapted for monumental images of Jordan’s mountainous terrain, where most of the desert scenes were done. Perhaps in keeping with a 1950s look, the lensing is curiously staid, and the matte lighting used works against a sense of depth.
Production design is a strong suit, though here, again, one feels the camera isn’t taking full advantage of the period sets, which were apparently constructed with great attention to historical detail. It’s churlish to point out that a 1918 screening of Chaplin’s “The Kid” (1921) is an impossibility, yet given the filmmakers’ pride in their period accuracy, it is a bit surprising. Aside from the choice of English dialogue, which is sure to divide critics, Alexander Hacke’s electronic score adds another level of incongruity: Western-inspired twangs call attention to the film’s oater underpinnings, yet the cacophony that accompanies Nazaret’s discovery of murdered Armenians in a well needn’t have been so forcefully underscored if the scene itself were stronger.