With "The Cut," Fatih Akin has made a fantastically ambitious film set around the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It stars French actor Tahar Rahim as Armenian blacksmith Nazaret Manoogian, a father of twins who is conscripted into the army at the start of WWI. His eight year journey starts in Mardin, (in what is present day Turkey near the Syrian border), and includes stops in Lebanon, Havana, Florida and North Dakota along the way.
The story also incorporates the genocide of Armenians in 1915, a subject that only in the past five years has ceased being considered taboo in Turkey. (In April of this year, the Turkish Prime Minster acknowledged the events, even if he stopped short of an official apology.)
It's a big subject, told on an epic scale, far bigger than anything else that Akin has embarked upon in his hitherto illustrious career — and much grander than "Ararat," the 2002 film in which Atom Egoyan addressed the Armenian genocide. Sadly, fortune doesn't always favor the brave: Akin ultimately fails to make the material work, especially in the second half of the film, when it develops into a disappointing adventure story.
The director has said that "The Cut" is the third and final part of his loosely themed "Love, Death and The Devil" trilogy. However the movie lacks the nuanced qualities of the two first previous films, the brilliant "Head-On," and the Cannes-acclaimed "Edge of Heaven."
The new effort stars French-Algerian actor Rahim, best known for his brilliant debut in Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet." But since Rahim doesn't speak Armenian, Akin has opted to accommodate the star by shooting the Armenian sequences in English. Strangely, the director also keeps the other characters — whether Arabic or Cuban-speaking — in their own tongues. This half-way house approach was used by Roman Polanski in "The Pianist," so it's not an unreasonable consideration. However, Rahim — as previously demonstrated in "Black Gold" — is not an actor comfortable performing in English.
It's especially troubling in "The Cut" because language is such a strong component of the film. Nazaret escapes a death squad, because his would-be assassin gets cold feet while cutting his throat, and instead of killing the protagonist, only manages to severe his vocal chords — thus rendering him mute. Yet later on when asked if he speaks in Arabic, he nods yes. But the director seems to have presumed that the audience will realize that Nazaret’s mother tongue is Armenian, a fact abundantly clear when he writes from left to right. While it’s easy to see why the director made the decision, the result is that it makes the opening a little clunky and worse, some of the story confusing for an uninitiated audience.
Nonetheless, the decision to make the principle character mute is itself a brilliant maneuver that acknowledges the century of silence on the genocide in Turkey, the country where Akin's parents were born. The sequence — starting with an attempt to coerce Armenians into converting to Islam and around the genocide — is some of the strongest that the director has ever shot.
"The Cut" is at it’s best when we see Nazaret suffering in the desert after being told about the death of his wife. It’s here that the director’s decision to shoot the film in cinemascope with anamorphic lenses really pays off. The shot of a water-well full of bodies and then a sandstorm blowing are quite magnificent. There are also several brilliant musical choices, including a rock guitar riff that perfectly captures the character's despair.
But having so expertly set up the genocide story, Akin makes the bizarre choice to abruptly change the whole direction of the film. The moment is signified by a sequence in which the protagonist watches Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid" and the world starts to learn about cinema. When the action jumps to Lebanon in 1922, Nazaret meets a former friend from Madrid who informs him that his twin daughters are alive. It's a plot twist that not only comes out of nowhere, but also veers the film off into an increasingly preposterous and meandering direction. Everyone Nazaret meets seems to tell him that his daughters have moved on somewhere else. The story has really veered way off course when Nazaret finds himself being shot at by the Ku Klux Klan in Florida.
Having spent so many years of his life on the film, Akin has seemingly thrown everything at the screen, but the attention to detail seems to have come at the expense of the big picture.
Grade: C +
"The Cut" premiered this past weekend at the Venice Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.