Dramatizing the horrible for the purpose of educating and entertaining the audience at large is no easy feat. Striking a balance between a compelling storyline without disgusting viewers with the sickening brutality of, say, child sex trafficking (“Sound of Freedom”) or confinement of an American serving time in a foreign prison (“Midnight Express” and the more recent “Amerikatsi”) is treading a very fine line.
Recognizing the difficulties of translating humankind’s inhumanity and the individual’s irrepressible spirit into watchable fare without succumbing to nausea-inducing bathos or stomach-churning violence, it’s with some reservations that I can recommend “Amerikatsi,” a film directed and starring Michael Goorjian. The 2022 film opened on Sept. 8 in New York City and Los Angeles and is the first film selected to represent Armenia at the Oscars in the Best International Film Feature category.
The film’s premise is simple: A young Armenian boy escapes the Turkish genocide, returns to his Soviet-controlled homeland following the Second World War, and is imprisoned on trumped-up charges he never fully realizes due to his inability to speak the language of his captors. Charlie, our Armenian-born hero, is a woefully naïve individual upon his return, which seems highly unlikely for any individual with the means to make the journey from America to Armenia. The screen persona of Charlie Chaplin is clearly appropriated for Goorjian’s character, and the movie is rife with other cinematic allusions.
Charlie is a widower who accepts Stalin’s call for Armenians to repatriate themselves, unaware the economic liberty and freedom of speech he has come to know and appreciate in America is nonexistent under Soviet control. His American penchant for loudly colored ties and speaking what’s on his mind soon lands him in hot water with a Soviet commander, and he is arrested and confined to a solitary cell, from which he is relieved once a week for a ritualistic beating in the warden’s office.
Thankfully, the beatings are not depicted, but for all the offscreen bruising and battering rendered unto Charlie, he seldom succumbs to despair. In large part, this is due to Charlie’s discovery he can observe the apartment of a couple outside the prison from his cell’s window. In “Rear Window” fashion, he voyeuristically insinuates himself into the couples’ mutual life.
The husband, Tigran, is a prison guard and, coincidentally, the brother-in-law of the Soviet officer responsible for Charlie’s 10-year prison sentence. Tigran’s Soviet masters have told him he must give up his dreams of being a painter after he has committed one too many churches to canvas. Tigran’s wife, Ruzan, also indicates her desire for Tigran to hang up his brushes for the sake of the couple’s future together.
In the film’s most satisfying sequences, Charlie emulates Tigran’s artistic efforts with whatever he has at hand. From this point on, Charlie becomes less annoying and more of a sympathetic character who even develops a believable rapport with the prison authorities. The creation of art makes the creator an artist and, ipso facto, a better person. While certainly not true in all instances, it seems to have that very effect on Charlie if not Tigran. Even the guards lend a hand and thereby redeem themselves through art by smuggling in art supplies.
The film’s high points, however, also reveal what is for me its main storytelling drawback – the failure of the film to capture Charlie’s history and, therefore, document his interior life. A single mention of his deceased wife is the only excuse given to viewers for Charlie’s decision to remove himself from America to the relatively unknown Armenia. Certainly, there was more to life in America than a wife to keep him there. Did he take up arms to fight fascism during the war? Why was he so naïvely optimistic to believe his life could be better if lived under Soviet control? Or, could it be, Charlie’s simply a rare example of the species Candidus apolitical humanus?
Before wrapping up with my final, albeit minor, complaint, it’s also necessary to point out the completely arbitrary nature of the film’s climax, which occurs when Charlie’s weekly beating resumes. Such narrative heavy-handedness detracts from the heretofore relatively simple storytelling.
Finally, “Amerikatsi” lowers the stakes of its cri de coeur for freedom by setting the film inside a prison, a prison itself that exists within the Soviet realm where everyone is imprisoned by a stifling ideology and authoritarianism. Goorjian’s performance, while admirable, seldom reaches the crescendos of genuine pathos as the cinematic adaptation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
However, it’s doubtful (and hoped) that the 1970 film adaptation of Solzhenitsyn’s short novel ever elicited viewers’ smiles that are generated by Goorjian’s “Amerikatsi.”