When Turkish-German auteur Fatih Akin pulled “The Cut” from the Cannes slate citing “personal reasons,” the rumor mill went to work overtime. Certainly, Cannes would have seemed like the natural home for the filmmaker’s next opus, so if, as was suggested, he had not been guaranteed the competition slot that his profile surely demanded, what could the reason be? Politics? Pique? Some internecine beef we weren’t aware of? Within all that gossip however, there was one possible explanation that never really got much play: that the film would not be very good. Akin’s previous films, including such terrific, joltingly energetic, critically lauded and awarded titles as “Head-on” and “The Edge of Heaven” (the first two in a thematic trilogy that “The Cut” is mooted to complete), seemed to put that beyond the realm of possibility. And in truth, it’s not not very good. It’s close to a disaster.
The story (co-written by Akin and veteran screenwriter Mardik Martin) can be briefly summarized as concerning Nazaret, an Armenian husband and father of twin girls, who is drafted into World War I to perform slave labor under the authority of brutal, venal Ottoman forces. His brother is killed in front of him and Nazaret himself only spared because the man tasked to slit his throat is so reluctant to kill that he merely inflicts the titular cut, which knocks Nazaret out but doesn’t kill him, though he wakes up mute. Surviving through instinct and the odd act of kindness until the war’s end, Nazaret discovers that his daughters are still alive and sets out on an epic odyssey to find them. There are some nice shots of deserts, period-accurate design, interesting locations, excellent costuming —the window dressing is fine.
But the problems start the first time a character opens his mouth, which is in the very first scene. The first exchange in the film, between Nazaret the Armenian blacksmith (Tahar Rahim) and a pompous, wealthy client, is conducted in English. So it’s one of those films in which everyone speaks English with a different accent to indicate their point of origin? Oh wait no, everyone except the Armenians speaks their own language. It’s not wholly unprecedented, but here this decision feels like a fundamental misstep from which our engagement with the film never recovered, for several reasons.
For one, it’s clear that Akin is using this device as a shorthand to elicit audience sympathy with the Armenians, in contrast to the “foreign”-language-speaking “others.” This is politically uncomfortable on a few levels, notably the tacit assumption that the intended audience for this film is an English-speaking one, even though a lot of the discourse in advance was about how the film would be received in modern-day Turkey, where in certain situations, even referring to the plight of the Armenians as a genocide can be a very dangerous thing to do. Beyond that, our own self-conscious sensitivity to issues of Western cultural imperialism created in us an oddly guilty reaction to watching a film set in the Middle East in which only the “good guys,” the victims of these atrocities, speak English.
Those are issues outside the film. The issues within go even deeper: The dialogue is awful — stilted and dry, with the actors trying to to wrestle naturalism into a non-native tongue rendered into colloquial speech about as convincingly as Google Translate might. It can be unintentionally comic, as with the tendency for people to talk in declarative, impersonal sentences like a schoolteacher saying the latest news on the war is “Horrible carnage! Many people dying!” Or it can be over-literal, as when Nazaret is reunited with his brother’s wife and she addresses him directly as “Brother-in-law” repeatedly. Or it can be confusing, as when Nazaret comes to America and doesn’t understand that English, or the fact that he writes in Armenian. Whatever else, the effect is always distracting.
Furthermore, the story is bloated and episodic (the film’s 2h 18m length doesn’t help the pacing), and remarkably unengaging for what should be emotionally epic —at its end, there was hardly a wet eye in house, and we’re easy criers (to be fair, we did come close during a scene in which Chaplin‘s “The Kid” plays, because… Chaplin’s “The Kid”). To date, we’ve almost exclusively raved about Rahim, but here, even when by virtue of being mute he doesn’t have to contend with the dialogue, he seems lost in a role that mistakes screen time for characterization (and however gray his hair, he does not look like the father of 18 year-old twins). Potentially interesting, knotty subplots, especially about religion, are picked up and dropped without any real comment being made, and the occasional striking image of bodies thrown into a well, or a hellish, Hieronymous Bosch-ish Armenian refugee camp, just becomes so much backdrop for Rahim to stumble through, anguished, on his way to the next setback.
Akin’s a director whose previous work we’ve admired enormously, and “The Cut”’s been high on our Most Anticipated lists since we first heard about it. But part of his appeal has always been a kind of rambunctious irreverence, like his iconoclastic use of music, and the highly individual, raw authenticity he brought crackling to the screen. But when it’s not awkward, “The Cut” is, of all things, staid, and with a bland lead and uninspired execution it’s very very far from the “Sergio Leone meets Charlie Chaplin” vibe that Akin teased. Alexander Hacke’s score at times threatens to do something interestingly anachronistic in its use of electric guitar, and Rainer Klausman‘s cinematography is handsome, but all else is folly: grandiose, self-serious, and dull. But worst of all, it’s an opportunity squandered: 2002’s “Ararat” aside, the world has waited a long time for a major film that gets to the heart of one of the worst-reported atrocities of the 20th Century. Guess we’re going to have to wait a bit longer. [C-/D+]