It’s a city of fable, proudly perched where East meets West. It’s had many names: Lygos and Byzantium, New Rome and Istanbul. But at the Dawn of World War I, it’s still known as cosmopolitan Constantinople.
As the capital of the shrinking-but-still-significant Ottoman Empire, Constantinople is home to more than a million people—a bustling, vibrant mixture of Muslims, Jews and various stripes of Christians. Armenian Christians, the Empire’s largest minority, are particularly notable. While many of the country’s two million Armenians live in poverty, Armenians who call Constantinople home are often prominent intellectuals and businessmen, doctors and priests. More than 160,000 Armenians live in Constantinople alone.
And the city’s about to get one more.
Mikael Boghosian works as an apothecary in his small village of Siroun. He prescribes medicine and treats the ills of his friends and neighbors as best he can. But his village deserves more. Now, thanks to the dowry of his betrothed, Maral (and the generosity of her father), Mikael can afford to travel to Constantinople, study modern medicine and become the doctor his village so desperately needs.
“Normally, it takes three years to become a doctor,” Mikael tells Maral. “But I am confident I can complete it in two.”
“I will pray for you every day,” she says.
Sure, Mikael doesn’t love Maral. But he’s confident that, with time, he will. Their marriage must wait until he becomes a full-fledged doctor anyway—plenty of time to let feelings sprout and bloom. And for now, he has work to do.
Mikael is swiftly swept up by the city’s dizzying charms. He lives with his uncle, a rich, respected businessman. He meets and befriends Emre, the young, womanizing son of a local prince. And he makes the acquaintance of Ana, dance tutor to his uncle’s two young daughters. She’s young, beautiful and—despite her Parisian accent—a “proud Armenian,” like himself.
“You make me feel like I’m at home,” she tells him with a smile. “Thank you very much.”
Are these two Armenians attracted to each other? Perhaps. But Ana has a beau of her own—hard-driving, hard-drinking American journalist Chris Myers. And Mikael, of course, has his betrothed back home. He made a promise to her. To his village. And he’s determined to keep it.
But as the clouds of war explode into full-throated storm, another set of circumstances could keep Mikael from keeping his promise. The tension between Muslim Turks and Christian Armenians grows more taut, more troublesome. Turks take to the streets, shouting. Subtle discrimination turns to outright abuse.
On April 24, 1915, the riots begin. Hundreds of prominent Armenian leaders—intellectuals, priests, businessmen—are arrested, including Mikael’s uncle. Mikael tries to free his benefactor, but he’s knocked cold by a soldier’s rifle. The next time we see him, he’s in a labor camp, building railroad lines for the Ottomans. The Armenians there are being worked to death.
And things will only get worse.
We see a great deal of good here amid terrible circumstances. But at times it can be difficult to see what the greater good might be.
Take, for instance, Mikael’s titular “promise” to his bride-to-be and his growing feelings for Ana. Do you keep your commitments to your fiancée and hold true to your plan to become a doctor for your village? Or do you admit to yourself, and to the people you care for, that you’ve fallen in love with someone else? Mikael ultimately chooses to fulfill his promise, but we know that choice comes with a cost, both for him and for those he loves.
Chris, Ana’s longtime boyfriend, must struggle mightily when he realizes that Mikael and Ana have feelings for each other. But even so, he agrees to help save Mikael’s family. And as a journalist, he constantly puts himself in harm’s way to report the unfolding Aremenian genocide to the world. At one point, Mikael expresses disdain for Chris and what he does—writing stories and taking pictures of the horrors around him, his own life relatively untouched. “Without reporters, the Armenian people would disappear, and no one would know,” Chris says by way of defense.
But Chris has his own promise to either keep or break. When a high-placed Ottoman official leaks word to him that the government plans to slaughter those in a Christian refuge, Chris and Ana help folks pack up. When Chris is later caught by the Ottomans, they give him a choice: Divulge his source or risk being executed. Despite receiving a beating, Chris doesn’t reveal his informant.
Both Chris and Mikael put themselves at risk to save others, braving hails of bullets and diving into swirling waters to rescue children. Ana cares for children, too—encouraging kids and adults alike to not lose hope. Elsewhere, another character makes a great sacrifice for someone else.
Most of the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire are Christian—fueling the Turks’ antipathy toward them.
Before Mikael ever leaves for Constantinople, his father reminds him, “God has given you this mission. May He bless and protect you.” When the killing begins, Armenians praise God in spite of their sufferings. For example, when Mikael reunites with his parents, they admit that the Turks destroyed everything they owned. “Our business is gone,” Mikael’s father says. “We have nothing left.” But Mikael’s mother, Marta, chimes in with, “Praise God. At least we have you.”
Priests and reverends try to save the Armenian people, risking their own lives. One runs a Christian refuge that cares for orphans—secretly ushering many out of the country. Another leads a group of refugees through the mountains. But the challenge these men of faith face is daunting indeed. In one of the movie’s most poignant scenes, with refugees pinned in the mountains by Turkish troops, a woman turns to a reverend and says, “They say that the Turks will kill us all. It’s not true, is it, reverend? God will protect us, yes?”
We hear prayers for protection, as well as prayers of thanksgiving. We see Christian weddings, funerals and elaborate church ceremonies.
Despite Mikael’s promise to Maral, he and Ana sleep together when they’re thrust into the same Constantinople hotel room during a particularly violent night. Eventually the camera shows them kissing and partially disrobing before they’re shown in bed, too.
It wasn’t necessarily a one-night stand for Mikael. He later tells his mother that he can’t follow through with his promise. But Marta reminds him of his commitments, and Mikael marries Maral in a small ceremony outside their future home. We see the two of them in bed together on their wedding night, both likely naked (though both are mostly covered by bedclothes). Mikael’s shown on top of his new bride. Shortly thereafter, Maral is pregnant.
When Emre and Mikael meet, Emre introduces himself as a passionate student of “female anatomy.” They, along with Chris and Ana, go to a restaurant where an alluringly dressed woman dances for patrons. (She entices Ana to join her.) A woman—clearly attracted to Mikael—pulls him to the dance floor later and tries to seduce him. He’s not interested: “I think I was being attacked,” he later tells Ana.
Ana and Chris kiss on occasion, though rarely on the lips.
The Promise takes place, obviously, during a very violent moment in world history. Evidence of this tragic period is never far from the camera’s eye.
Before the genocide begins, Mikael, Emre and others are asked to remove organs from a gray corpse. Emre makes a mistake while cutting around the corpse’s bowels and is squirted with fecal matter, which prompts one person to faint.
Chris goes to a decimated Armenian village, covering his nose and mouth briefly to ward off the stench of death; he eventually sees the corpses of two men, strung up as if in warning. He and his driver then see survivors—women and children—being marched into the desert (where, historically, most of the Armenians died of thirst or starvation). From some distance away, Chris sees a woman fall, and a soldier shoots her.
Mikael, meanwhile, is forced into a labor camp. There, a railroad tie crushes a man’s leg. When Mikael and another prisoner try to drag the injured man away, he’s shot in the back by a guard. The guard asks the other prisoner to thank him for “easing your burden.” Later, that prisoner picks up a box of unstable dynamite and—while saying “thank you” to the same guard—throws the box on the ground, killing himself, the guard and several others. (We see bodies strewn around).
We glimpse prisoners crying for help while locked away on train cars. Armenians and Turks are killed and wounded by gunshots and artillery fire. Someone dies by firing squad. People are beaten and bear the wounds of their assaults. Ana hits some assailing Turks with cabbages. (“At least they’ll be well fed,” Mikael quips.) We learn that Ana’s father committed suicide. People drown.
[Spoiler warning] The Turks attempt to slaughter everyone from Mikael’s village. While a couple of individuals, including Mikael’s mother, survive, most lie dead beside a stream, bodies strewn about carelessly. Mikael finds his father and his wife among the dead. Maral’s body is bloodied, but we don’t see the true horror of what happened to her: Later, Mikael tells a group of Armenians that their unborn baby was ripped from Maral’s body.
One s-word and a couple of other profanities (“b-tard” and “h—“). God’s name is misused seven or eight times.
Mikael, Ana, Chris and Emre attend a ritzy party where champagne is poured and drinks are imbibed. They quickly leave the soiree for an edgier locale where they drink absinthe (a green, alcoholic beverage that was outlawed in the U.S. around 1915 and stayed that way for nearly a century).
Chris apparently drinks too much at a party and insults the host and his German guests. We hear a reference to opium dens.
Marta essentially insists that her son marry Maral, as planned, even when Mikael wavers. He does, of course. And when Ana shows up at Marta’s house asking about Mikael, Marta bluntly lies and tells her he’s dead. The lie is discovered not long after, and Marta eventually apologizes. Maral suffers from morning sickness and vomits on the ground (mostly off camera).
The Promise is set against the backdrop of the Armenian Genocide, in which an estimated 1.5 million Armenians—most of them Christians—were systematically annihilated by the Ottoman Empire and its successor state, Turkey. And despite widespread acknowledgement of the atrocities, to this day Turkey insists that the genocide never took place.
Turkey’s vehement denials may explain why it’s taken more than a century for a film like this one to be made. Major studios steered clear of this one: “It’s too hot [to touch],” producer Ralph Winter told Plugged In. He added that the film’s makers took extra security precautions throughout the production.
But The Promise was made. And the result is a sweeping movie experience, one that recalls 1960s-era films like Doctor Zhivago: It’s an intimate story set in the context of a historical epic, bringing an almost unimaginable tragedy into a more human scale.
But while The Promise draws much-needed attention to an important historical moment, it also requires a few caveats.
This is a violent movie, no doubt. And while scenes of battle and turmoil aren’t particularly bloody in themselves, the aftermath can be pretty troubling. Bodies, including those of women and children, are left to rot in the open air. People we care about die (or are presumed to die), sometimes in pretty terrible ways.
Moreover, the titular premise of The Promise—the tension Mikael feels between his duty to Maral and his romantic passion for Ana—comes with a rather unwelcome and, I think, unnecessary bedroom scene, filled with heavy breathing and bosom heaving. Artistically, the film can feel a bit stilted. Sweeping epics aren’t made very often these days, and perhaps this film unintentionally illustrates just how difficult it can be to attempt them.
But those caveats aside, The Promise does accomplish something few mainstream films dare to do: It weaves faith into the story organically and takes it seriously.
Mind you, this is not a Christian film: No one has a come-to-Jesus moment, there are no altar calls. But it’s obvious from the first frame to the last just how important faith is to the Armenians we meet—how their belief in, and commitment to, Jesus impacts every aspect of their lives. And even though they sometimes died for that faith, they clung to it anyway, praising God even as their sufferings and pain mounted.
The Promise‘s painful portrait of the Armenian genocide isn’t an easy one to watch. But the story it tells is worth hearing.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.