Tuesday, April 25, 2017


April 24 was Armenian Martyrs Day in the U.S., and with that thought presumably in mind the movie The Promise, a romantic drama set in those dark days, was released last weekend. The producers gravely overestimated the moviegoing public's interest in that still-controversial episode of 20th century history. So if no one really wants to see Armenians victimized on film, how about a movie in which an Armenian is a villain? Set roughly at the same time as The Promise, Asif Kapadia's film adapts a 1930s novel credited to "Kurban Said," whose true identity remains a mystery today. Kapadia is a British director best known for his documentaries about the doomed race car driver Ayrton Senna and the doomed singer Amy Winehouse. Fittingly, his subject here is a doomed (or should we say star-crossed) romance between Ali, a Muslim Azeri prince (Adam Bakri) and Nino, a Christian Georgian princess (Maria Valverde) at the brink of World War I.

At that time, Georgia and Azerbaijan are territories of the Russian empire, and when war breaks out Ali's brothers join the Russian army, only to face discrimination due to their religion and nationality despite their largely westernized upper-class credentials. Back in Baku, the Azeri metropolis, Malik, an Armenian (Riccardo Scarmacio), tries to impose himself on Nino, but is killed by Ali in an oil field. Ali must flee to the sticks while Nino, shamed by the scandal in the eyes of Georgian society, faces the prospect of exile to Moscow. Instead, she persuades Ali's spiritual adviser Mustafa (Numan Acar) -- he wears traditional dress so that's what I'm guessing -- to take her to where her beloved is holed up. Here they consummate their romance, with Mustafa conveniently at hand with the credentials to make everything legal. In this apparently easygoing environment Nino is not required to renounce her faith.

For a time the happy couple live in idyllic rural poverty, but the collapse of the Russian empire creates an opportunity for Azeri patriots. A democratic republic of Azerbaijan is proclaimed but soon finds itself menaced by the new Bolshevik regime in Russia, which covets Azeri oil. Nino is sent to Iran for safekeeping but can't stand it in that more traditional Muslim country, complete with a harem and a well-meaning eunuch whom Nino can't help but find repulsive. It takes a while for her to forgive Ali for leaving her there, but they're hardly reconciled before he has to join the troops once more in a heroic last-ditch defense of a railroad bridge against the Commie invaders.

Ali and Nino is one part Romeo and Juliet, one part For Whom the Bell Tolls, though to be fair the original novel appeared before the Hemingway story. Movie buffs might be reminded more of Doctor Zhivago, only with less snow. Kapadia's film is unlikely to inspire comparisons with future films, however, because it's only superficially epic. It features picturesque landscapes and cityscapes and picturesque young lovers, but Christopher Hampton's screenplay and its interpretation by the leads are almost perfectly vapid. It's a lovely picture to look at thanks to Gökhan Tiryaki's cinematography and the slam-dunk locations he gets to shoot, but for all the tragic elements the film sometimes feels like something shot as a musical with the songs left on the cutting room floor. I'm still satisfied with it because it introduced an unfamiliar bit of world history to me and it really does look good, but Ali and Nino also left me thinking that that same history could be the makings of a real movie someday.

No comments: