Review of The Promise (Terry George, 2016, EUA, 134 min.), Tomás Ferreira & Luís G. Rodrigues

Image: Monument in memory of the Armenian Genocide, Valencia, Spain.

Text by Tomás Ferreira & Luís G. Rodrigues

There is a lot to be said about Terry George’s The Promise, both good and bad – even though, for us, the good very much outweighs the bad. In writing this review, we encountered some difficulties as regards reaching an aesthetic verdict about this film, as, while one of us was quite taken by the art nouveau atmosphere that pervades a significant portion of this cinematic venture, another one of us was quite taken aback by some technical and creative ineptitudes of the director and what the same one of us termed “Oscar Isaac’s uncomfortable accent”. We could hardly fail to notice that, this being (so far as we know) only the third movie of any consequence to address the Armenian Genocide (the other two being John Kurkjian’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, in 1982, and Atom Egoyan’s Ararat, in 2002), we have to wait until very late in the film to hear a few words of Armenian that are not personal names. We were also bound to be slightly bored by the considerably anti-climatic frequent slow motions. However, regardless of these problems and also of how keen we might be on the reconstruction of the mood of Constantinople in the eve of World War I, we would like to argue that the main merit of The Promise is not aesthetic or artistic, but one of historical justice and political importance.

Nowadays, many (even if not enough) of us are rightly suspicious of critics whose focus or interest lies in the connection between art and politics – and in trying to make the works of art they analyze conform with their own political agendas or rejecting them because they don’t. Granted, art is not always immune to political ideologies, but what these critics generally do is not, as they should, to uncover the politics of the work of art but casting their own politics onto the works of art about which they were supposed to ilumminate us. This, off course, is as damaging as trying to make sense of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, mistaking – let’s say – the Red Queen for…I don’t know…Hitler? Stalin? Mussolini? Kim Jong-un? Pinochet? Just imagine being so deranged as to try to turn the most delightfully whimsical book ever produced into a boring party manifesto. Anyway, you get our point: it would be boring and corrosive and it would spoil whatever it touches. No wonder so many critics and university professors these days have become like King Midas. At any rate, this slight detour aims at something different. We make these caveats so that it is clear that, when we speak of ‘political importance’ or ‘historical justice’, what is implied is not our politics, but rather (and regardless of however much we may agree with them, which we do) the politics or, better said, the political awareness of The Promise and its importance for our historical moment.

So, let us allow the reader a cursory view of the plot, while revealing as little as possible, so as not to spoil the film for those of you who have not seen it yet. The Promise follows the story of Mikael Boghosian(Oscar Isaac), a modest apothecary in a village in the remote southeast of the Ottoman Empire in the eve of the Great War, who has vision and a passion for medicine, the subject he wants to study in Constantinople. Being poor, he cannot afford the tuition fees, and so he agrees to become engaged to the daughter of a wealthy neighbour and uses her dowry to pay for the Medical School fees. He sets off for the capital, having promised his fiancé that he will return as pledged – the promise of the title. However, once in Constantinople, he meets and falls in love with the tutor of his uncle’s children, Anna Khesarian, an Armenian of the wider diaspora, born in Paris and alumna of the Sorbonne. A good portion of the first half of the film follows their incipient relationship having as a backdrop the events leading up to outbreak of the war and the growing nationalism, hatred and social tensions that go side by side with the entrance in the war of the Ottoman Empire on the side of the German and the Austro-Hungarian Empires. However much of a topos of Americanization the (double) love-triangle and the whole love intrigue in the film might be, it could be argued that it still carries a specific pathos as it unfolds against a scenery of violence – from vandalism to death marches – that corresponds to a chapter of history that, as we shall see, is not often enough recited. The latter part of the movie follows Mikael’s trials and those of all of his friends and family during the most acute stages of the Armenian Genocide and tells of how he manages, malgré tous and, perhaps, too, malgré lui, to come back and fulfil his promise without renegating his love for Anna either. Don’t be deceived, however, as the end is still very much heavily tragic – and heavily symbolic of both the hardships of a world of mayhem and the irredentism of a people that, since Classical Antiquity, has barely had a moment’s peace and still embodied one of the most significantly distinct and rich cultures of late Antiquity and the Middle Ages – and beyond. As you will know when (if) you read about Armenian history (and there is a review of one such book in this edition and another to come soon), the Armenians have been forced to move and transplant their culture countless times throughout history and, at the end, The Promise allows us a glimpse of what was their later-twentieth-century history (we just have to bring to mind the little girl Yeva). The fate of the Armenians is embodied, however precariously, in this small assortment of characters: persecuted yet determined to survive and stay faithful: to their kin, to their people, to the dream of their country, to their culture and, no small matter, to their God of old.

It is, however, a sad thing – and something related to the historical importance of this film – that it will probably not get that many good reviews. There has been a long list of attempts – successful until this time around – to boycott films depicting the Armenian Genocide. This is, to a great extent, due to Turkey’s (the successor state of the Ottoman Empire) unrepentant influence with foreign governments but also, it has to be said, to the cowardice of Western governments and – we suspect – prejudice on the part of some sectors of the public. Let us bring to mind that, the year after The Promise was released, The Ottoman Lieutenant (Joseph Ruben, 2017) was itself released. This latter film’s release was not a coincidence and serves as the film industry’s spineless apology for the historical bravery of The Promise. In it, an American nurse revolted with the racial segregation and discrimination of US society decides to leave for the Ottoman Empire to become part of an American mission. There, she meets, is fascinated by and ultimately falls in love with a dashing Muslim Ottoman lieutenant of the army, while her other suiter (oh yes, it is also a love triangle…now, who could have seen that one coming?), a young and equally idealistic American doctor in her mission settlement in Anatolia is portrayed as less manly and (ah!) as colluding with the Armenian rebels, brigands and highway robbers and one is never told, we seem to remember, that there is a Genocide going on and that it was in self-defense that the Armenians fought (in the rare cases when they had time to defend themselves). So you see, the perfect example of politics directing art, with no regard to justice or historical accuracy.

This topic is particularly sensitive in Western media because not only do we live in a “dictatorship of relativism”[i] but also in a dictatorship of the politically correct, which so often amounts to a tacit collective agreement to lie or withhold the truth. Normally, contemporary Western society would, in its histerical way, grab any opportunity to point the finger at a genocide — but admittedly only if the perpetrators are white, preferably European people and the victims non-European, non-white and non-Christian. The Armenian Genocide, as we all ought to know, was perpetrated by Ottoman-Turkish Muslims against Christian Armenians, so, in large sectors of society, consensus dictates one should remainsilent about it. Some will comply because they are afraid to be perceived as Islamophobic or “Turkophobic”, while others, a perhaps smaller yet significant portion, will ignore the topic out of some deep-seated conviction that there must be some justification for it that they can cling to in order to exculpate or at least minimize the actions of the guilty party, if nothing else because the Armenians are Christian and the modern Western world seems to have declared war on Christianity. We live in a world, therefore, where virtually no one will dare blame Turkey, the Ottoman Empire’s successor state for the oppression, displacement and ultimately extermination of Armenian communities within its borders. Let us bear in mind that it was necessary to wait until the autumn of 2019 for the United States Congress and Senate to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide and that, as of this date, only the governments of 32 countries worldwide have done the same. We — and by ‘we’ I mean Western society — seem determined to ignore the impressive record of crime of an unrepentant state just for the reason that it is not Western — as if that made it less responsible for its own political decisions and political crimes — and because its victims were “only” Christian. In such a context, one cannot ignore the sheer political bravery of a work of art that dares to audaciously and unequivocally portray this shameful page of history that we are commonly too cowardly, too subservient or too stupid to acknowledge.

[i] This quote is from the homily pro eligendo pontifice delivered on 18th April 2005 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, one day before he himself was elected Pope and took the name Benedict XVI. It can be consulted here: