Tribeca Film Festival 2015: A Second Look at "The Cut"

© GORDON MUEHLE

Despite a slew of negative early reviews, the latest film from Fatih Akin is a stirring work worth seeing.

The festival circuit can be a cruel place. As every filmmaker knows, any debut made at a marquee festival runs the risk of finding itself felled by bad—or worse, indifferent—reviews. For art house films, gaining festival prestige is a matter of life or death: It’s the only way they can compete to be seen against the mega-millions studios spend to market their mainstream movies. But if merely a whiff of artistic insufficiency emerges from a festival run, even a beloved auteur can find his latest film struggle to stay afloat in American theaters.

This is the situation that Fatih Akin’s latest film, The Cut, currently finds itself in at Tribeca Film Festival—the historical epic’s second festival showing, and its second chance at survival, before a very limited American release on August 7.

The Cut came into last year’s Venice Film Festival with a lot in its favor: a charismatic art house star, Tahar Rahim, who raised eyebrows in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, as its lead; a script co-written by veteran Mardik Martin, who had helped Scorsese write classics like Mean Streets and Raging Bull; and auteur darling Fatih Akin, whose films Head-On, The Edge of Heaven, and Soul Kitchen each offered incomparably energetic, emotional, and alive films, in the director’s chair. Finally, The Cut had the distinction of being one of the few films to tackle the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottomon Empire—and by a director of Turkish extraction no less.

Akin’s star had been on the rise and this film seemed like the right opportunity to reach a wider audience. But a handful of mixed reviews out of Venice stopped the film’s momentum in its tracks—even with the 100th anniversary of the genocide this year.

With all this in mind, The Cut became an essential stop for me in Tribeca. Having been a great fan of Akin’s going all the way back to his early film In July (2000), I wondered how bad a misfire The Cut could be. Akin always seemed to me a filmmaker who relished challenging himself, and telling the story of a tragedy that’s left a lasting, bitter chasm between Turkish and Armenian cultures is most certainly a difficult feat.

Indeed, The Cut is markedly different from anything Akin’s attempted before: it’s a classical and staid film that contrasts sharply with the kinetic drama and whiplash comedy of his earlier work. I could certainly understand how those who expected the cinematic fury of Head On or the tender mystery of The Edge of Heaven might balk at a film that feels decidedly old fashioned, as if Akin made his film under the (formidable) sway of Lawrence of Arabia.

Rahim plays Nazaret, an Armenian blacksmith and doting father who lives on the Ottoman Empire’s outskirts during World War I. As a Christian Armenian, Nazaret finds himself brutally conscripted by the Turks and forced into hard labor in a chain gang. The wife and daughters he leaves behind, however, fare far worse, which Nazaret gleans from the lines of Armenians he watches being marched at gunpoint down the road he’s being forced to build. Eventually, the Turks line up Nazaret and his co-workers to execute them by knife, in order to save bullets. As fate would have it, Nazaret’s executioner purposefully bungles the cut (the film’s namesake) and Nazaret survives, at the expense of losing his voice.

With nothing other than his indomitable will, Nazaret’s sole purpose becomes finding his family, which takes him on a Dante-esque tour of the Armenian genocide’s horrors and, after the war, a transcontinental trek to re-unite with his twin daughters. It’s a straightforward, brutal film, and despite the mixed reviews from Venice, I felt Akin's dramatic vise tighten relentlessly as the film unfolded, until the sheer emotion of Nazaret's travails had overwhelmed me.

And I admit, I readily succumbed: What were flaws to earlier reviewers were virtues to me. What some identified as the film’s emotionally simplicity, I experienced instead as unflinching directness. Where others dismissed the fact that Nazaret’s single goal was always just out of reach, I found it to be an accurate and compelling examination of history’s great horrors, and the struggles scattered families endure as a result of them. (Think: the real life stories you’ve heard from the Holocaust, Rwanda, or Iraq.) While others knocked Akin for not delving into enough detail about the Armenian genocide itself, I think he managed to find the necessary, bold strokes to address an event that’s so rarely discussed, even now. How many films are there about the Armenian genocide? Clearly not enough. Even Akin’s hard rock score served as an apt counterpoint to Nazaret’s silent face, voicing the sea of shock and tragedy that he buries within himself in order not to lose the will he needs to move forward. I walked out of The Cut having been powerfully moved by its earnest straightforwardness. So often films about events like this preach to us cloyingly; instead, Akin stands back, letting the simple story of a father willing to withstand the world’s brutalities on the way to finding his daughters do the heavy lifting. The Cut is a worthy film and an emotional freight train.

How then to reconcile my contrary opinion with the earlier reviews? It’s possible that the discrepancy lies in a single lynchpin of a difference: at Venice, Rahim and other Armenian characters spoke English; at Tribeca, the dialogue was re-dubbed into Armenian with English subtitles. Is it possible that the patent staginess of Armenians speaking English in a historical epic could sour the entire viewing experience? It may sound silly, but movies are all about little details. And by contrast, I was willing to buy into the obvious overdubbing, which I was able to note without being removed from the film’s emotional flow. It’s an unprovable theory, but the line between a film that works and one that fails is razor thin, as veterans of the art film industry know.

Either way, I’d argue that Akin’s The Cut deserves a second opinion—mine is staunchly in favor.