The campaign of conscripted labor, systematic rape and murder, death marches, and displacement waged by Turkey against its Armenian citizens at the start of WWI, which resulted in perhaps as many as 1.5 million deaths, is marking its 100th anniversary this week. Yet it remains an extremely tender topic for Armenians, not least because the Turkish government has refused to acknowledge the extent of the calamity, sometimes even prosecuting and jailing Turkish citizens for citing the killings or calling them genocide. As a result, The Cut lived up to its title for me, creating two sets of strong, sometimes dueling reactions. The Armenian in me felt grateful to director Fatih Akın, an ethnic Turk who grew up in Germany, and his co-writer, Mardik Martin (Raging Bull), an Armenian-American, for taking on this charged topic and giving these gruesome facts a rare cinematic airing. But the film lover in me sometimes wished that The Cut, which often has the self-consciously art-directed, undead feel of a Natural History Museum diorama, were less encyclopedic and more irreverent, with more of the messy misbehavior and convincingly complicated characters that give Akin's best films, Head On and Edge of Heaven, a jittery sense of life.
The story opens in 1915, in the then-thriving Armenian community of Mardin, Turkey. Title cards inform us that the approaching war has awakened Turkish dreams of rejuvenating the weakened Ottoman Empire, and as a result of that nationalism "minorities within the Empire become enemies overnight." Rumors of war ripple through the town, but blacksmith Nazaret Manoogian (Tahar Rahim), his beautiful, loving wife, and their adored twin daughters otherwise appear to be living an idyllic life, all patient parental coaching and bedtime songs and stories. That saccharine falseness—an easy trap to fall into when depicting victims of a brutal crime—was gently mocked in Ararat, a more intellectual, less emotional tale of the Armenian genocide in which a film within the film shows victims as blameless innocents, their lives perfectly pacific before the campaign started. The cast, which includes a roll call of seasoned Armenian actors (Simon Abkarian, Arsinée Khanjian, and Kevork Malikyan among them), does its considerable best with the blandly "good" characters, but some still feel a tad one-dimensional. Rahim is particularly fine, his slightly reticent air of old-world self-possession giving Nazaret enormous dignity. The actor's soft eyes and expressive body language make it easy to read his character's emotions, even when Nazaret loses the ability to speak after his vocal cords are pierced by the cut of the title, a thrust of a sword intended to kill him.