Transnational displacement is common subject matter at this point for Fatih Akin, so it’s odd that despite repeatedly dwelling on the emotional ramifications of such separations, he still hasn’t managed to convey a sense of the sheer size, scope, and diversity of the planet. That becomes something of a crutch in The Cut, his decade-spanning, continent-hopping look at the aftermath of the Armenian genocide, because the film’s narrative requires that its embattled protagonist, a refugee named Nazaret (Tahar Rahim), navigate a whole slew of unknown territories and political ideologies over the course of a few decades in the early 20th century.
Various narrative challenges are posed by such a story, but Akin’s commitment to classical narrative structure precedes a desire to engage with such untidiness. For him, all that’s needed is single cut to take the story and its central character from Lebanon to Havana, or from 1918 to 1921. Yet, for a film about a father’s grueling and seemingly endless journey to reconnect with the daughters he thought lost after his culture’s violent commandeering at the hands of Ottoman Empire forces, Akin’s willingness to sacrifice the contextual complications inherent in The Cut’s temporal and geographical shifts makes rather lightweight a drama that has much to gain from a sense of toil, duration, and physical duress.
The film’s opening hour suffers least from this particular setback, as Nazaret finds himself stranded in the Turkish desert after escaping his captors, his health and internal compass deteriorating in unison. It’s the bleakest episode in what often plays like a miniseries composited into a feature film, and it’s where the always compositionally shrewd director is at his most rigorous: Much of the action, which involves Nazaret stumbling along and periodically being harassed by armed militia, is captured in withdrawn master shots, the parched landscape predictably represented as a forbidding sprawl of ambient threat.
In a film that often registers the anguish of its historical context in rather generalized terms (at times, the refugees could stand in for any displaced and oppressed people in world history), this section is the most lucid display of the collective grief of the Armenians, and culminates in Akin’s most potent image: Nazaret propping up his crumpled-over, badly burned sister-in-law in the remains of a slaughtered camp (the staging here recalling the wounded final reunion of Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff), a lugubrious dolly move taking in the muttered final request of this dying victim as a minor-key drone rumbles beneath: “End my suffering.”
Emotional scope is ostensibly meant to expand from here, but what follows is only a pale shadow of this devastating peak. Part of the responsibility for this lukewarm temperature is traceable to Rahim, who, in a role that requires facial dexterity in the absence of speech, rarely goes deeper than the vague look of spiritual dejection he wears during this standout scene. The root of the problem, however, is Akin’s clumsy handling of an implausible screenplay. Narrative gears shift on a dime when Nazaret’s old friend materializes out of thin air for the sole purpose of bringing to his attention that his daughters are alive, at which point the film immediately pivots from a tale of grief to a tale of hope. The scene is set in the afterglow of a refugee camp screening of The Kid (from 1921, though making an erroneous appearance here in 1918), an awestruck moment for Nazaret that makes literal the Chaplinesque qualities—non-verbal communication, run-ins with insensitive macho men, plenty of odd jobs and train-hopping—of his ensuing journey.
But where Chaplin’s cinema extolled chance and happenstance as key elements of an entire worldview, Akin falls back on convenience and contrivance to streamline the thornier specificities of his grand-scale narrative. To say that Akin is playing with suspension of disbelief is an understatement: In shuttling Nazaret so swiftly from place to place, dropping him into Lebanon, Havana, Florida and Minnesota without ever once introducing a language barrier, a serious financial complication or a false lead, the movie’s lack of credibility is practically absolute.
Ditto for its one-sidedness: Nazaret, so named to hammer home his Christ-like suffering in the face of a cartoonishly cruel postwar landscape, comes across less like a living, breathing case study of the Armenian experience than a puppet brutally tugged this way and that by the churning engines of stakes-minded screenwriting en route to a reunion that feels inevitable rather than hard-won. If the intention behind one of Akin’s favorite shots—a portrait of a character gazing out at sea—is to express awe at the immensity of geographical expanses, The Cut winds up with an altogether different impression when Nazaret finally completes his mission in the wilds of North Dakota: It’s a small world, after all.