'The Cut': Venice Review

Gordon Muehle
An Armenian blacksmith can't speak and doesn't seem to have all that much to say

Turkish-German director Fatih Akin completes his 'Love, Death and the Devil' trilogy with this drama starring French actor Tahar Rahim ('A Prophet')

VENICE -- A mute blacksmith father goes on a trip across the continents in search of his daughters in The Cut, an ambitious but only intermittently stirring historical epic from Turkish-German director Fatih Akin. It’s pretty remarkable that a director of Turkish origins has decided to tell a story that starts in the 1915 Ottoman Empire and in which an Armenian plays the lead, since that is the year the oft-denied genocide of the Armenians took place. But the narrative continues through 1923, pushing the fate of a people into the background for a rather generic search-and-survival story.

The third segment of the director’s Love, Death and the Devil trilogy, after the acclaimed Head-On and The Edge of Heaven, this will generate a decidedly more mixed response. However, the film has been presold in many territories, with a staggering 10 countries alone represented on the seemingly endless list of co-producers.

Nazaret Manoogian (French actor Tahar Rahim, from A Prophet) is a blacksmith in Mardin, a town in present-day Turkey near the border with Syria. His wife (Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra) and two young children, the twins Lucinee and Arsinee (Dina and Zein Fakhoury), are separated from him when the Ottomans join WWI and Nazar, like all Armenian men, is drafted and ends up being forced to work as a road builder in the desert.

The entire crew of Armenian workers is executed by a gang of bandits and mercenaries, though Nazar manages to survive because the thief (Bartu Kucukcaglayan) that’s supposed to slit his throat doesn’t really want to kill him, only making the titular cut on his neck. Despite the fact that it’s obviously a very calculated choice to have an Ottoman/Turk show some basic human decency and thus save an Armenian from becoming a victim of genocide, the two men’s complex rapport is believably sketched in just a few scenes. (That said, the exact details of why the Armenians have to die remain rather vague.)

One of the best shots in the entire film is also part of this sequence, as Nazaret, lying on the ground with his hands tied behind his back, wakes up the next morning next to the lifeless body of one of his co-workers. Since he’s also lost his voice, apparently because the cut damaged his vocal cords, Nazar can’t do anything but nudge his forehead against that of his dead fellow Armenian, a wordless gesture that suggests respect, compassion and desperation all at once.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film contains only a few other moments that are that expressive and touching, moments that are scattered amidst long stretches in which Nazar is on the move and tries to survive but in which barely anything that happens throws some new light on what Nazar thinks or feels. After escaping certain death, Manoogian has to hide his Armenian identity from Bedouins and the inhabitants of Aleppo (now in Syria), where he ends up working for a kind soap manufacturer (Palestinian-Israeli actor Makram J. Khoury). When WWI ends in 1918, the Ottoman occupiers are violently chased out of town by the angry locals, though Nazar stops throwing stones like those around him when a young Turkish boy is hit.

He is also reminded of his children when watching an open-air screening of Chaplin’s The Kid, supposedly in 1921, right after the film came out. It is after the screening, with his face still wet from his tears, that Nazar learns that his daughters are still alive and the film’s odyssey structure really kicks in, as the protagonist has to comb through Syria, Lebanon, Havana, Cuba, Florida, Minneapolis and even the Great Plains in search of his daughters. Unintentionally, the number of locales the mute father has to travel to becomes increasingly comical, as each time he seems to have barely missed his on-the-move daughters.

Akin was clearly aiming for an epic in the David Lean/Elia Kazan mold, with possibly some touches of the more sweetly melodramatic side of Chaplin because his protagonist can’t speak. But exactly because the main character literally loses his voice early on, the film doesn’t allow for easy audience identification. The script, co-written by the director and Mardik Martin, the screenwriter of Armenian origins who co-wrote Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Raging Bull, concentrates too much on Nazar's singular quest, namely surviving in order to find his daughters, for other happenings or characters to register much during the film’s nonetheless almost epic, 138-minute running time.

There’s also a language problem, as all the Armenian characters speak accented (and occasionally clunky) English while the Ottomans, Arabs and Cubans all speak their own languages (all of which this poor artisan seems to understand without any problems). This would be an acceptable choice if Nazar hadn’t gone to the U.S., where everyone also speaks English. This initially gives audiences the rather odd impression that all Americans were fluent in Armenian in the early 1920s.

Rahim has a great face but isn’t given enough opportunity to make it clear to audiences what his character is going through beyond the most basic emotions, especially after Nazaret loses his faculty of speech. All other actors are bit players, with Moritz Bleibtreu and Trine Dyrholm making cameo appearances as an industrialist and Christian nun respectively.

The widescreen film’s globe-trotting locations and sets, handsomely designed by Allan Starski (Schindler’s List, The Pianist), are often captured by cinematographer Rainer Klausmann in wide shots that take audiences from the desert to the Atlantic Ocean and finally to rural North Dakota, with especially the influence of Westerns noticeable in the compositions. And Akin’s regular composer, Alexander Hacke, at least avoids falling into the trap of copying the scores of the epics of yesteryear, instead coming up with his own rocky, often electric-guitar driven compositions.

Production companies: Bombero International, Pyramide Productions, Pandora Film, Corazon International, NDR, ADR Degeto, France 3 Cinema, Dorje Film, BIM Distribuzione, Mars Media Entertainment, Opus Film, Jordan Films, Anadolu Kultur

Cast: Tahar Rahim, Simon Abkarian, Hindi Zahra, Makram J. Khoury, Kevork Malikyan, Trine Dyrholm, Moritz Bleibtreu, Lara Heller

Director: Fatih Akin

Screenplay: Fatih Akin, Mardik Martin

Producer: Fatik Akin, Karl Baumgartner, Reinhard Brundig, Nurhan Sekerci-Porst, Flaminio Zadra

Co-producers: Fabienne Vonier, Francis Boespflug, Alberto Fanni, Valerio De Paolis, Ruben Dishdishyan, Aram Movsesyan, Laurette Bourassa, Doug Steeden, Piotr Dzieciol, Ewa Puszczynska

Director of photography: Rainer Klausmann

Production designer: Allan Starski

Costume designer: Katrin Aschendorf

Editor: Andrew Bird

Music: Alexander Hacke

Sales: The Match Factory

No rating, 138 minutes