A film whose time has come but whose dramatic expression apparently has not, “The Lark Farm” is all the more disappointing for being the first high-profile picture after Atom Egoyan’s “Ararat” to deal with the Armenian genocide, in which more than a million Armenians living in the Ottoman empire were slaughtered between 1915 and 1917. The fact that the genocide is still such a politically charged question for Turkey has kept it off Hollywood development lists, despite being a tragic precursor to the Jewish Holocaust in the following war. For reasons of uniqueness alone, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s film is bound to excite audience interest.
But while the militant Italian directors bring great sympathy and conviction to the Armenians’ plight, “The Lark Farm” never comes to dramatic grips with its story, based on Antonia Arslan’s novel. Rolling on for two hours with a sprawling cast of characters who don’t come into focus, pic has the old-fashioned look of the quality TV of yesteryear, and its main outlet is likely to be the small screen. Taviani fans will search in vain for the imaginatively unorthodox touches that brought history to life in films such as “Padre Padrone” and “Chaos.”
The first worrisome signal is the decision to have the whole international cast — playing Armenians, Turks, Greeks, Italians and Syrians — speak perfect, albeit poorly dubbed, Italian. As easy as it might make dialogue, the language convention flattens out every character and ethnic group. It also reinforces the feeling that this is really a television miniseries dressed up as a theatrical release.
The directors’ most recent work has, in fact, been for TV, including an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s “Resurrection.” The influence of the great Russians can be felt off and on in “The Lark Farm,” particularly in the opening scenes set in 1915 in the wealthy home of the Avakian family. The kind-hearted Aram (Tcheky Karyo) and his wife, Armineh (Canadian-Armenian actress Arsinee Khanjian), don’t listen to the winds of war blowing from the Young Turk government in Istanbul, and instead blithely ready their country estate, called the Lark Farm, for the arrival of Aram’s brother, Assadour (Mariano Rigillo), from Venice.
The charming atmosphere of these scenes is shockingly overturned when a ferocious military detachment turns up at the estate, along with an Ottoman colonel of their acquaintance (Andre Dussollier), and slaughters every male member of the family, children included. The women are rounded up for a long march into the Syrian desert, where they will be left to die.
The cruelty of the plan to eliminate the rich Armenians, seize their property and leave “Turkey for the Turks” will instantly push Holocaust buttons for most viewers, and indeed this historical precedent casts a new, grim light on the 20th-century mind and the horrors it was capable of conceiving.
The gory massacre at the farm, including a great deal of vicious mutilation, is far less graphic than contemporary films such as “The Passion of the Christ,” but still sickening to watch. The women’s march into the desert, however, is strangely unconvincing, despite the star power of Khanjian and Spanish actress Paz Vega.
Vega’s charisma anchors the story in the role of Nunik Avakian, a spirited beauty in love with a dashing Turkish officer (Alessandro Preziosi) who tries to save her, and later the lover of Moritz Bleibtreu, playing a less dashing but more noble officer sent on the march of Armenian women.
But like other fine thesps called onstage to play unlikely characters, including Mohammed Bakri as a heroic beggar and Angela Molina as a Greek friend of the family, Vega and Khanjian are basically set afloat in a stormy sea of awkwardly timed flashbacks and end up more as representative victims and eyewitnesses than full protagonists.
The Tavianis’ usual fine tech staff hails from the Italian pantheon. Cinematographer Giuseppe Lanci creates a rich atmosphere, in tandem with Lina Nerli Taviani’s eye-catching costumes and Andrea Crisanti’s luscious sets.