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Atkin’s ‘Cut’ puts Armenian massacre on screen Stateless ‘Villa’ brings strong message

The idea of a film without a country makes an excellent statement about the Israeli-Palestinian disaster — it’s a pity the concept is considerably more powerful than the movie at hand. Given Suha Arraf’s record as scripter on “The Syrian Bride” and “Lemon Tree,” one expects more than ham-fisted dialogue from her helming debut, “Villa Touma,” . Stolid, stilted and lensed with little understanding of modulation, the pic has sparked controversy, yet once that dies down, “Villa” will be subsumed by far superior Palestinian product.
Arraf originally submitted the film as a Palestinian production, but when Israeli politicos realized that all the coin came from Israel, they demanded the money back. The compromise, sending the pic to fests as a stateless feature, is such a clever idea it’s surprising it’s not done more often; if only “Villa Touma” on its own could make such a potent declaration. The Palestinian haute bourgeoisie, pre- and post-Israeli statehood, has been frustratingly neglected in cinema, making the missed opportunity here truly unfortunate.
 
Orphanage
In 2000, when Badia (Maria Zreik) ages out of the Christian orphanage where she grew up, she has nowhere to go but to the aunts she’s never met. The three sisters exist in semi-isolated stasis in their villa, living as if nothing has changed since the Six-Day War, when Israel took the city. The eldest, Juliette (Nisreen Faour, “Amreeka”) greets her niece even less warmly than Mrs Danvers greeted the second Mrs de Winter: Clearly, Badia is not a welcome addition to this unhappy home. Juliette rules the roost, middle sister Violette (Ula Tabari) is the neurotic one, and younger Antoinette (Cherien Dabis, director-star of “May in the Summer”) remains perpetually under her siblings’ viselike control. Their home is one of unbending routine, their fashions unchanged since the early 1960s (though most would have been outdated even then). Violette was briefly hitched to an elderly man who keeled over shortly after their wedding; her fleeting marriage makes her feel superior, yet the self-torment of what could have been has made her a pinched, bitter mess.
 
Into this hothouse comes timid Badia, underage and unschooled in the proprieties of “society.” In anticipation of marrying her off to one of the few eligible bachelors among Ramallah’s remaining upper caste, the sisters impose a strict program of piano lessons, posture and deportment, but when they try launching the blossoming young woman via church encounters and tea socials, they’re largely rebuffed by people who view the family as oddities.
“Villa Touma” has one good moment, when the sisters, with Badia in tow, exit their home and walk to church. Auds forget the modern world exists after the antediluvian world inside the house, so the sight of these four, dressed in kid gloves and hat veils, walking down the streets of present-day Ramallah with its cacophony of noise, traffic and wolf whistles, becomes a cleverly constructed shock. Unfortunately, nothing else matches that moment.
Concept
The concept isn’t the problem, as the idea of Palestinians trapped in the past, refusing to acknowledge the painful changes around them, could be an interesting one if well pursued. The Toumas’ internal exile gives them no consolation, and their perpetual mourning of the past is purely social rather than political (of course, the political rendered the social obsolete). Not that politics are completely absent: Badia falls for Khalil (Nicholas Jacob), a wedding singer from the Kalandia refugee camp, and despite the sisters’ hermetic existence, they can’t close out the sound of shelling during the Second Intifada.
These subtleties are drowned out by the film’s mannered melodrama. There’s the didactic screenplay, ensuring viewers understand the situation via phony explanatory dialogue (don’t look for any similarities between this and Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.”). Then there’s Arraf’s handling of her performers, especially the actors playing the sisters, all of whom have fortunately proven their talents elsewhere. Juliette behaves as if she’s got an onion perpetually under her nose, while Violette seems to have something more pungent under hers, and Antoinette is short on personality, even a one-dimensional one like those of her sisters.
Camerawork is meant to emphasize the characters’ fixed lives via static lensing and establishing shots, yet the stiff visuals are rendered distressingly flat by unmodulated lighting that deadens every image within the house. Music is poorly inserted, lacking consistency and cohesion. At least the production design is praiseworthy.
 
VENICE, Italy: Fatih Akin’s “The Cut” is the first movie by a director with Turkish roots to tackle an issue long taboo in the country: the early 20th-century mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. The movie caused a stir in Turkey even before its Venice Film Festival premiere, bringing the German-Turkish director criticism and threats. But Akin insists he’s not a pioneer, or a provocateur. He’s simply trying to bring the topic into the open. “There (was) a trauma 100 years ago and — you know this from individual analysis — if you don’t confront yourself with the trauma you will never get cured,” the director said during an interview in Venice, where “The Cut” is one of 20 films competing for the Golden Lion prize.
 
“I think what counts for an individual counts also for society.” Historians estimate that as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks in 1915, an event widely viewed by scholars as the first 20th-century massacre. Turkey denies that the deaths constituted massacre, saying the toll has been inflated, and that people died on both sides as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated during World War I.
The killings remain an inflammatory issue for Turkish nationalists. Akin and an Armenian-Turkish newspaper received harassment and threats after he gave an interview recently about the movie.
But Akin said Turkey has begun to debate the issue more openly. Earlier this year, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the country was ready to “confront” the ethnic slayings.
 
“There is a process of analyzing this trauma in Turkey, and I am part of the process,” Akin said.
“The Cut” confronts the story through the tale of an Armenian blacksmith — the Biblically named Nazaret, played by “A Prophet” star Tahar Rahim — who is torn from his family amid the killing and spends years searching around the world for his daughters. Criticism of the film in Venice has been more artistic than political. In the screenplay by Akin and Armenian-American scriptwriter Mardik Martin (who co-wrote Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”), the Armenian characters speak in English and the others in their own languages. Some reviewers found that gave the film a stilted air. (Agencies) And some felt Rahim’s performance was hampered by the decision to have Nazaret rendered mute by a knife to the throat early on. Akin was stung by the negative reviews, but said the most important audiences for the film will be Turks and Armenians.
 
Shot on 35-millimeter film stock, rather than digitally, and using widescreen Cinemascope lenses, it takes visual cues from the likes of Sergio Leone and Terrence Malik, offering stunning panoramas as the lonely figure of Nazaret travels from Turkey to Syria, Cuba, Minnesota and North Dakota. “When I was reading and analyzing about the massacre, I discovered quite early that the massacre is not just about killing,” he said. “It’s also about the diaspora, the spread of the Armenian folk all over the world.” “All my films are about migration,” said Akin, who was born in Hamburg in 1973 to Turkish parents.
 
Akin has called “The Cut” the final chapter in a trilogy he’s named “Love, Death and the Devil.” The two earlier instalments, “Head-On” and “The Edge of Heaven,” both dealt with tangled identities and moved between Germany and Turkey. The director said all three films explored his relationship with his ancestral land. Now he’s ready for a change. “I am done with Turks,” he said. “I want to work with blonde people called Hans, eating sausages.” (Agencies)
 
By Jay Weissberg

By: Jay Weissberg

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