September 4, 2020

Movie Review: The Promise (Survival Pictures - 2016)

The Promise is a 2016 film (released in the United States in 2017) that uses a romantic triangle just before and during the Armenian Genocide of 1915. It is a rather interesting concept - the use of the interplay of two men in love with the same woman to focus attention on one of the worst atrocities in modern history. I will let the readers decide if it works.

The three main characters are an Armenian pharmacist who wants to be a doctor, an Armenian woman traveling in the Ottoman Empire with the third character, a journalist reporting on what will later be called World War One.

In order for the pharmacist to pursue a medical degree, he leaves small village in southern Turkey and moves to Constantinople (now called Istanbul). To afford the tuition and expenses in the city, he agrees to marry a girl from his village in return for a generous dowry - I believe this is "the promise."

Once in Istanbul, the triangle develops. At the same time the three are involved in romantic relationships, what is portrayed as a systemic government effort to eradicate the Armenian population in the country begins and continues until the three are miraculously reunited and rescued. It was difficult to believe - no amount of the suspension of disbelief would help.

Of note, almost immediately after The Promise was released, three Turkish film companies released a movie titled The Ottoman Lieutenant. It portrayed the genocide as localized random acts of violence rather than a concerted, government-directed campaign. Read my review of that film.

Neither of the two competing movies did well at the box office. The Ottoman Lieutenant cost over $40 million to make, but grossed just over $400,000 worldwide. The Promise cost almost $100 million - all bankrolled by Armenian-American investor Kirk Kerkorian - and grossed only $12.4 million.

The producers of both films claim the money was not important - the message was. Producers of The Promise have labeled The Ottoman Lieutenant as an attempt to counter their film. I would not be surprised if the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was behind the effort.

Criticisms: The Armenian Genocide was a massive human rights atrocity. It just seems to me to use a romantic triangle is not giving it the gravity it deserves. The counter argument is that it was a way to get people to watch it. It didn't work, obviously.

I don't understand the significance of the title. If it was the agreement for the pharmacist to marry a local girl in exchange for the dowry that was to enable his studies in Constantinople, it really had little to do with the plot.

I was disappointed in the movie and story line, but not the cast. Christian Bale, Charlotte La Bon, Isaac Oscar, and one of my favorite actresses, Shohreh Aghdashloo, gave solid performances, but not even actors of that level could save the script.

Despite that, I do recommend it because of the attention it does draw to the Armenian Genocide. It is available on Netflix.

September 1, 2020

Movie Review: Escaping Tel Aviv (Sharif Arafah - 2009)

Escaping Tel Aviv is a 2009 Egyptian movie that takes place in mostly in Israel (filmed in South Africa). The plot involves two intelligence officers - one works for the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate (GID), and the other is an Israeli Arab who is an officer in Mossad, Israel's civilian intelligence agency.

Both officers speak fluent Arabic and Hebrew and have similar backgrounds, so much so that the Arabic title of the movie is Wilad al-'Am (ولاد العم‎) which translates to "the cousins."

The movie begins with the Mossad officer Daniel, using the Arabic name 'Izzat (played by Sherif Mounir), leaving Port Said, Egypt, with his Egyptian Muslim wife Salwa (played by Mona Zaki) and their two children. The wife is unaware of his true identity, having met him while he was living as an Egyptian for seven years. She was also unaware that the departure was planned. Once in Tel Aviv, she is desperate to return to Egypt with her children.

Egyptian intelligence officer Mustafa (played by Karim Abdel Aziz) is assigned the mission of repatriating Salwa and the two children from Tel Aviv back to Egypt. The movie revolves around his operation to do just that.

Some comments on the production. I was surprised at the scenes supposedly set in Tel Aviv - it was convincing. I don't speak Hebrew, so I will leave an assessment of that to someone who does. I was impressed that both of the lead actors, both Egyptians, were able to sound convincing (at least to me) in Hebrew. The majority of the movie was in pure Egyptian dialect.

It has been a long time since I have used Egyptian Arabic - it took me about half an hour to get my ear re-tuned to it. This movie was made for an Egyptian audience, so they are not speaking anything resembling Modern Standard Arabic. Egyptians speak fast, and have a unique staccato style of talking. I had to pay close attention.

As many of you know, I often criticize the subtitling of Arabic soundtracks. I found this one to be about as close as could be to the original Arabic. Some colloquialisms were changed to make sense to an English-speaking (or in this case, reading) audience. The Hebrew dialogue was subtitled in both English and Arabic.

A few criticisms. The thought that the Egyptian GID would dispatch one of its best officers to Israel to repatriate a housewife and two children is a bit far-fetched. This would normally be handled diplomatically - Egypt and Israel have had full diplomatic relations since 1980. In the movie, Salwa at one point asked an Israeli Arab to direct her to the Egyptian embassy.

I will not spoil the movie, but suffice it to say that some of the tactics used by Egyptian officer Mustafa are off-the-chart unrealistic. I will let you decide which.

It's a two hour movie, and with a fair amount of the suspension of disbelief required for most fictional stories, it is entertaining. As a former operations officer, it was interesting to watch a movie about intelligence officers where Mossad is not the dominant player.

It is available on Netflix.