Review: Fatih Akin's well-intended 'The Cut' does a disservice to a historical tragedy
VENICE — There's a piece of slang used on the website TV Tropes that regrettably applies to much of "The Cut." That word is "narm." Narm is defined as a moment that is supposed to be serious or tear-jerking, but due to poor execution becomes unintentionally funny. "The Cut" is unfortunately the narmiest drama I've seen at Venice.
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that's certainly true of Fatih Akin's incredibly earnest and well-meaning attempt to engage with the build-up, execution and fallout of the Armenian Genocide carried out by the Ottoman authorities in the 1910s. Obviously this is a huge and serious subject worthy of cinematic treatment at the highest level -- which is regrettably not what Akin delivers. Between 1 million and 1.5 million people are thought to have been killed on death marches through the Syrian desert, during which they were beaten, raped and murdered. Unfortunately, you don't really get any impression of the massive scale of all this from "The Cut" -- its canvas is limited to the point that you could get the impression that the persecution and massacres affected maybe a couple of thousand people.
There isn't a sense in the film of this tragedy as a systematic, organized atrocity affecting millions, which led to the coining of the term genocide and influenced the Nazis (a specific quote allegedly from Hitler -- "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" -- is contentious, but there is far less doubt that he was influenced by these crimes). This matters; it does a disservice to those killed to minimize their story, however unintentionally, and I think it is unintentional -- a question of badly fluffed storytelling.
This detrimental lack of scale is possibly partly down to budgetary issues, but mainly due to the creative decision to focus on one man's story. There are certainly ways to pick out a single person caught up in a large scale tragedy and use their story to personalize the wider event. But the focus here on Tahar Rahim's blacksmith Nazaret Manoogian is so narrow that almost everything else is excluded.
When we meet Nazaret in 1915 in Mardin, he's a jolly fellow, proud of his beautiful wife and twin daughters. The twins hand him a scarf they've embroidered for him. You pretty much know instantly that the scarf is going to be a symbol to cling onto when all else is lost, and so it proves. Rumors are flying around the village that war is coming. "Horrible carnage, many people dying," reports the twin's schoolteacher ruefully. The actor's delivery of this line marked the first point at which I shifted in my seat, no longer sure I was in safe hands. And yes, the line is in English.
For some bizarre reason, the film is mostly English language spoken in Armenian accents; a strange choice for a first English language feature from Akin. There are occasional detours into subtitled Turkish, which makes things even more confusing -- if you're going to have some people who wouldn't have spoken English speak in English, why not have the other people who wouldn't have spoken in English speak in English? My best guess is it's an attempt at Othering the Turkish for an English speaking audience -- we're on the side of the Armenians -- but it's very jarring. It also throws up confusing questions about Nazaret's understanding of actual English speakers when the story eventually takes him to America.
Taken from his home in the dead of night by Turkish troops, Nazaret is forced to build roads in the desert with other Armenian men. "It's better than being on a battlefield," one shrugs. He speaks too soon: shortly after, the men are slaughtered with the exception of Nazaret, who survives a knife to the throat that renders him mute.
It's a shame that the most compelling asset the film has -- Tahar Rahim -- is from this point onwards (we're about 20 mins in with 2 hours to go at this stage) restricted to a wordless performance that strays unfortunately close to feeling like a game of charades at a couple of points. There follows a very unfortunate scene in a death camp where Nazaret's sister in law begs to be put out of her misery, but the staging of this trauma doesn't lend itself to the moment and the intended tragic effect eludes both actors and director. That's the most tactful way I can think of putting it.
One of "The Cut's" better scenes has Nazaret watching Charlie Chaplin in "The Kid" -- the congruence between a mute transient, as he is at this point, and a silent film star known for playing The Little Tramp might be a little on the nose, but it's a timely reminder that these horrifying events of medieval brutality were in fact playing out at the same time as Hollywood's glittering engine was cranking up on the other side of the world.
From here on, the quality of the film rapidly degenerates. The rest of the runtime concerns Nazaret's dogged quest to find his two daughters. He follows what clues he has and deals with more cloth-eared dialogue. At one point he is told "Your daughters are in good health, except Lucinée." So, your two daughters are both fine except the one who isn't? Anyway, from there his quest takes him around the world in eighty menial jobs - to around 100 orphanages in his homeland, then to Cuba, Florida, Minneapolis and North Dakota. There's a missed opportunity here for a genuinely moving look at the experience of displaced people, but by this point the film has failed to connect emotionally to the extent that you just wish he'd hurry up and find or not find his daughters, whichever. The eventual resolution has all the hallmarks of a cathartic emotional release, apart from the bit where you feel any emotions about it.