The campaign of conscripted labor, systematic rape and murder, death marches, and displacement waged by Turkey against its Armenian citizens at the start of WWI, which resulted in perhaps as many as a million deaths, is marking its 100th anniversary this week. Yet it remains an extremely tender topic for Armenians, not least because the Turkish government has refused to acknowledge the extent of the calamity, sometimes even prosecuting and jailing Turkish citizens for citing the killings or calling them genocide. As a result, The Cut lived up to its title for me, creating two sets of strong, sometimes dueling reactions. The Armenian in me felt grateful to director Fatih Akın, an ethnic Turk who grew up in Germany, and his co-writer, Mardik Martin (Raging Bull), an Armenian-American, for taking on this charged topic and giving these gruesome facts a rare cinematic airing. But the film lover in me sometimes wished that The Cut, which often has the self-consciously art-directed, undead feel of a Natural History Museum diorama, were less encyclopedic and more irreverent, with more of the messy misbehavior and convincingly complicated characters that give Akin's best films, Head On and Edge of Heaven, a jittery sense of life.
The story opens in 1915, in the then-thriving Armenian community of Mardin, Turkey. Title cards inform us that the approaching war has awakened Turkish dreams of rejuvenating the weakened Ottoman Empire, and as a result of that nationalism “minorities within the Empire become enemies overnight.” Rumors of war ripple through the town, but blacksmith Nazaret Manoogian (Tahar Rahim), his beautiful, loving wife, and their adored twin daughters otherwise appear to be living an idyllic life, all patient parental coaching and bedtime songs and stories. That saccharine falseness—an easy trap to fall into when depicting victims of a brutal crime—was gently mocked in Ararat, a more intellectual, less emotional tale of the Armenian genocide in which a film within the film shows victims as blameless innocents, their lives perfectly pacific before the campaign started. The cast, which includes a roll call of seasoned Armenian actors (Simon Abkarian, Arsinée Khanjian, and Kevork Malikyan among them), does its considerable best with the blandly “good” characters, though some still feel a tad one-dimensional. Rahim is particularly fine, his slightly reticent air of old-world self-possession giving Nazaret enormous dignity. The actor's soft eyes and expressive body language make it easy to read his character's emotions, even when Nazaret loses the ability to speak after his vocal cords are pierced by the cut of the title, a thrust of a sword intended to kill him.
Some scenes of atrocities strain a little too hard, like the one set inside a refugee camp where Nazaret finds one of his relatives, where monotone makeshift tents form a distractingly beautiful backdrop as he cradles the dying woman in front of a glowing sunset. But the horrors are generally depicted well, brutal enough to convey the magnitude of the crime without being too hard to look at, and never played for titillation. In one memorable scene, bandits on horseback swoop down on a woman who has lagged behind the group on a death march, starting to rape her as she urges her stunned little boy not to look and to run away.
Much of The Cut plays like a silent film after Nazaret becomes mute, with long periods containing little or no talk and searching close-ups of his sensitive face. Like Elia Kazan, whose America America he's cited as an influence here, Akin peoples his film with distinctive mugs, especially after Nazaret leaves the makeshift refugee camp where he takes refuge after escaping his captors. Also like Kazan's 1963 production, the film is suffused with feeling and studded with memorable moments, but it sometimes feels frustratingly overlong or episodic.
Applesauce offers a much lighter look at what it means to be Turkish—and at life in Brooklyn, post-9/11 paranoia, and how easy it can be to blow up a marriage, among other things. Playing as a variation on his character in last year's Summer of Blood, a vampire rom-com about a Brooklyn misanthrope who's smugly self-satisfied despite being pretty much of a loser, writer-director Onur Tukel's Ron is a powder keg of a private school teacher who sets off a chain reaction of rage, recrimination, and sometimes terrifying payback when he tells his wife, Nikki (Trieste Kelly Dunn), his best friend, Les (Max Casella), and Les's wife, Kate (Jennifer Prediger), about something he once did that he now regrets. Like the earlier film, Applesauce mixes genres (here, a revenge fantasy meets a relationship drama) to create a brightly amusing catalogue of stupid human tricks that doesn't fit neatly into any niche. You never know where this story is headed, but you can trust that it will be someplace worth going, in part because of lines like “I'm not a coward! I used to live in Bed-Stuy!” Maybe it's a Turkish thing. After all, Ron does tell Les, after Les gets mad and threatens him: “You may be Italian, but I'm Turkish. And Turkish people are fucking crazy!”
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 15—26.
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