Hitler famously asked, Who remembers the Armenians? when warned that the world wouldn’t stand for his plan to eliminate the Jews. It has taken much longer for the Armenian genocide by the Turks and their allies during the first World War to be widely recognized, but a century later, the slaughter of over a million Armenian Christians is being acknowledged, even in Turkey. Fatih Akin, a German Turkish filmmaker, has just released “The Cut,” a sprawling epic film about one Armenian father’s desperate search for his daughters after surviving the holocaust. Over two hours long, the movie follows him as he wanders from Turkey to Lebanon to Cuba and finally to North America, telling the story of the Armenian diaspora along the way.
The film starts in 1915, when the Turkish police show up one night to round up all the Armenian men in the city of Mardin, near the Syrian border, including the young blacksmith, Nazaret Manoogian (Tahar Rahim). Rahim starred in the French prison thriller “A Prophet” and he is just as intensely watchable here. Separated from his wife and twin daughters, Nazaret ends up on a road-building gang watched over by brutal Turkish soldiers, and then is kidnapped by a murderous group of bandits. One of those bandits is forced to cut Nazaret’s throat, but can’t bring himself to complete the task. Later at night, he sneaks back to rescue the young blacksmith. Nazaret is still alive, but he’s been rendered mute by the injury.
Akin describes “The Cut” as the third in his film trilogy Love, Death, and the Devil. I saw the second in the trilogy, the 2007 German production “The Edge of Heaven,” which I loved. It’s a wonderfully sensitive movie about Turkish immigrants to Germany, infused with loss and nostalgia. “The Cut” is very different in tone and cinematography, epic rather than intimate. Filmed in wide-open spaces in the desert and the plains, it captures the sense of desolation that Nazaret feels.
Managing to survive the horrors of the genocide through the assistance of fellow Armenians and some kindly Turks, Nazaret hears that his two daughters are also still alive. He becomes fixated on the idea of finding them and and his journey takes him to numerous orphanages in Lebanon, then on a sea voyage to Cuba (where lots of Armenians went), and eventually to North Dakota. It’s a really long trip, and though consistently interesting, it doesn’t always result in deep characterization. Nazaret himself remains a cipher, a man characterized only by his doggedness. Still, his struggle cannot help but be moving, especially to a viewer who can identify with the horror he experiences. World War I was the beginning of Germany’s bloody twentieth-century history; historians believe that the Germans knew full well what their Ottoman allies were doing to the ethnic minorities in their empire but did not interfere.
Two very different films are also out now, one British and the other French. Both movies are coming-of-age tales, that movie genre stalwart.
“A Brilliant Young Mind” stars Asa Butterfield from “Hugo” and two of my favorite Brits, Sally Hawkins (so wonderful in “Happy Go Lucky” and “Blue Jasmine”) and Eddie Marsdan, who can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. (Catch him in Showtime’s “Ray Donovan.” He’s the best thing there, even among some powerhouse performances.) Butterfield plays Nathan, a young fellow on the autism spectrum, who has a facility for mathematics. A sympathetic teacher (Rafe Spall) begins to tutor him in preparation for Great Britain’s team at the International Mathematics Olympiad. Sally Hawkins plays Nathan’s gentle mother, who tries desperately to forge a relationship with her son, despite his resistance and rejection.
Good performances and a compassionate approach to Nathan’s issues make up for the sentimentality that enables Nathan to forge ahead, even though the logic of his disorder would indicate otherwise. “A Brilliant Young Mind” is a sweet story, though not always a credible one.
“Breathe” is written and directed by Melanie Laurent, the actress who portrayed the Jewish resistance fighter in “Inglorious Bastards.” A hothouse drama about the deep, obsessive friendship between two teenage girls in a French provincial city. “Breathe” captures the intensity bordering on nuttiness that those relationships can have. Charlie (Josephine Japy) is a good girl, but she is restless and bored with her old friends. When Sarah (Lou de Laage) transfers into her high-school class, Charlie is quickly intrigued by the exotic brunette with her story of growing up in Africa. Charlie and Sarah become closer and closer, as only teen girls can, and their relationship takes on a passionate entanglement that’s only slightly tinged with eroticism. Laurent expertly builds the suspense and captures the heartache and shock that occurs when one girl turns on the other. The film feels as claustrophobic and inevitable at times as the girls’ relationship. It made me glad I have sons.