The Ottoman Lieutenant


If wishes were horses

(2016) Historical Romance (Paladin) Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley, Haluk Bilginer, Affif Ben Badra, Paul Barrett, Jessica Turner, Peter Hosking, Selʕuk Yöntem, Eliska Slansky, Hasan Say, Deniz Kilic Flak, Aysen Sümercan, Murat Seven, Bree Welch, Brian Caspe, Joe Weintraub, Ephraim Goldin, Tzvi Shmilovich, Frederick Preston, Begum Burian. Directed by Joseph Ruben

 

One of the oldest cinematic tropes in Hollywood history is the star-crossed lovers in wartime. Of course, that was a literary trope far earlier than that but still, two people separated by war but connected by passion – what could get the heart beating faster than that?

Lillie Rowe (Hilmar) is a feisty, high-spirited nurse in Philadelphia somewhere around 1915. She is horrified when a brutally injured man is denied treatment at the hospital in which she works simply due to the color of his skin. Being the child of wealthy but devout Philadelphians, her evening entertainment consists of listening to the noble Dr. Jude Gresham (Hartnett) at a missionary hospital in Eastern Anatolia plea for funds in an isolated mountainous region that is the only medical facility for hundreds of miles. He is proud that nobody is turned away from their doors when they require medical attention; be they Turks, in whose Ottoman Empire the hospital resides, or Armenian in whose ancient land the hospital is.

Lillie is inspired and offers her late brother’s truck to the hospital in lieu of cash but when the doctor ruefully asks how could the truck be delivered to the hospital when there are no roads in the vicinity, Lillie impulsively volunteers to deliver it herself. Of course, her parents are aghast but Lillie – remember she is high-spirited – is determined to see this through. The Ottoman government, not wanting to antagonize the United States government by having one of its daughters murdered by Armenian brigands on their watch, assigns Lt. Ismail Veli (Huisman) to escort Lillie to the hospital’s doorstep. The Ottoman Lieutenant (yes, isn’t that clever?) is not enthusiastic about the assignment since he feels he has more to offer his country in a very crucial period in their history than playing nursemaid to a spoiled American heiress but being a good soldier accepts the mission with some grace. He even plays tour guide with the girl, taking her to one of Constantinople’s most beautiful mosques and showing her some beautifully desolate landscapes.

There she also meets the hospital’s founder, Dr. Woodruff (Kingsley) who is all about not taking sides in the coming conflict but his own Dr. Gresham is secretly supplying arms to the Armenians who turn out to be quite adept at using them. When civil war finally does break out however, the hospital is going to be caught literally in the middle of the crossfire.

I actually looked forward to seeing this movie initially; that area of the world scarcely gets much notice from Hollywood and that particularly turbulent time seemed like the perfect setting for a movie but unfortunately what we got was a painfully poorly written hodgepodge of clichés and tropes that essentially take all the inertia from the film and turn it into something that even the Lifetime cable channel might have thought twice about airing.

Armenians have been justifiably outraged that the film ignores the Armenian genocide which was going on at the time and makes it look as if the Armenians were the aggressors and worse yet that they deserved what they had coming. The Turks have denied that the genocide ever took place and the movie does have some financing from Turkish sources so that has to be taken with a grain of salt; I don’t know that this whitewashes history so much as chooses to ignore it.

And maybe if there was a really great story here that particular sin could have been, if not forgiven, at least rendered less egregious but there simply isn’t. The plot is predictable and contrived and even though Huisman does his best as the dashing title character, at the end of the day Ismail has about as much depth as the cover of the average romance novel. Had they gotten Fabio to play the role they wouldn’t have been far off the mark. Huisman is a fine actor who deserves much better than this.

Hilmar is curiously lifeless here. Her voice is nearly flat and toneless and the camera captures little sparkle in her character. With the wide-brimmed hat she wears she looks a lot like a dime store hipster affecting a free spirited look but with nothing that would really inspire any sort of passion in anyone. Two men fall in love with Lillie and I’m hard-pressed to tell you why.

However, the movie isn’t without its charms. The score by Geoff Zanelli is epic and recalls some of the best work of John Barry. The cinematography by Daniel Aranyó is stirring, with the beautiful mosque interiors and the dramatic sweep of the Anatolian plains. The movie is gorgeous visually and audibly.

Unfortunately even though the actors try their best they simply can’t overcome the stilted dialogue and the hoary plot points. This turns out not to be the kind of indie film that gives credibility to a filmography but rather smacks of being a paycheck and little more. That’s doubly disappointing considering if they’d been able to come up with a script that had a little bit more meat on its bones this could have been absolutely enchanting instead of being what it is: ho-hum.

REASONS TO GO: The score is haunting and beautiful. Some of the cinematography is lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: Overall, the film is poorly written. Hilmar lacks the presence to pull off the kind of character that was needed to make this work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence as well as war sequences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kingsley and Hartnett both appeared together in Lucky Number Slevin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Water Diviner
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: El Amparo

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The Son of the Olive Merchant (Le fils du marchand d’olives)


A cross-eyed sheep in wolf's clothing.

A cross-eyed sheep in wolf’s clothing.

(2011) Documentary (Choices Video) Anna Zeitindjioglou, Mathieu Zeitindjioglou, Jean-Claude Dreyfus (narrator). Directed by Mathieu Zeitindjioglou

It is said that history is written by the victorious. It is certainly not written by the victims. In 1915-16 during the height of the First World War, Turkey embarked on a relocation program of its Armenian minority program. According to Turkish history, many Armenians died during this relocation although the Turkish government hadn’t intended them to do so. Some of the Armenians had allied themselves with Russia and carried out terrorist attacks which necessitated getting rid of the snake at their bosom so to speak.

The rest of the world sees things quite differently. Not so much a relocation as a genocide, in fact, the first of the 20th century (and sadly not the last). Somewhere between a million and a million and a half Armenians died during an 18 month period. Eyewitness accounts have all manner of atrocities being committed – sexual assaults, children being burned alive, boatloads of refugees sailed into the Mediterranean and then the boats capsized or sunk. The town of Ani, once a beautiful capital of the region, was literally razed to the ground as were many other villages and towns.

French filmmaker Mathieu Zeitindjioglou now living in Paris has his roots here. His name was changed from the original Zeitounjian to Zeitindjioglou – they have the same meaning in Armenian as in Turkish. His ancestor managed to escape to France because authorities thought he was a Turk.

After marrying Anna, a vivacious Pole, he is convinced to visit Turkey for their honeymoon and get a sense of his homeland today. One gets the sense Mathieu was a bit reluctant to do so; throughout the film he is behind the camera and rarely a participant directly in the proceedings. Frankly, I think the movie would have benefitted from his insights; how he felt about seeing these places where his ancestors once called home.. We are left with Anna’s descriptions of his eyes as the only clues.

Anna drives the film; she relentlessly questions Turks about the genocide, which in Turkey is not recognized as such. Museums contain sections that are revisionist, blaming the whole thing on the Armenians themselves. Questions to ordinary Turks on the street gets either ignorance that the event took place at all, or a kind of “well they did far worse to us” attitude. Anna is also present at conferences in which Turkish diplomats make their case to join the European Union; not everyone in Europe was in favor of this because of the country’s revisionist stance and refusal to at least acknowledge that the policy was of deliberate obliteration of all Armenian presence in their country. Although that happened nearly a century ago, I can kind of see their point. Imagine if Germany today made it official state policy that the Holocaust never occurred.

The interviews in Turkey are for the most part shot guerrilla style on a small camera, so at times the camera remains far too static and the interviews themselves can be repetitive. The film is fairly short so I suppose that reinforcing the main point with five or six different subjects saying the same things is useful. It also should be noted that it is illegal in Turkey to go on record saying that the Armenian genocide took place so some of the interview subjects may well have not wanted to go on the record saying that it did and risk arrest, which of course the filmmakers also did so one must give them both appropriate marks for their courage.

Interspersed in the interviews are animated sequences using a wolf-boy allegory to depict Mathieu’s journey. The animations are uniformly well done and seem to be the closest thing we get into Mathieu’s mindset. These are narrated by Dreyfus in a fine stentorian voice and had some of my favorite moments in the film.

At times I got the sense that the filmmaker was floundering a bit in trying to make his point but that can be overlooked because of the quality of the animation as well as the archival photographs and film that Zeitindjioglou utilizes throughout. If the images look a bit too uncomfortably close to those from Auschwitz and Rwanda one shouldn’t be surprised. After all, atrocities transcend time and place and inhumanity and brutality is no different in Ankara in 1915 as they do in Warsaw in 1938 and Kigali in 1994.

The movie is available on Amazon and on VOD. While it isn’t playing the festival circuit any longer, it is worth seeking out. Most Americans are ignorant that the genocide took place at all (unless you happen to be of Armenian descent) and this is a good opportunity to learn something while accompanying the Zeitindjioglous on their journey.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting and well-done animations. Informative about a genocide few Americans know much about.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks direct personal insight. Wanders aimlessly at times. Interviews are occasionally repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images, some bad language and mature themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie gets its name from the filmmaker’s last name which is translated from Turkish as “Son of the Olive Seller.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/13 the film has yet to be receive scores on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sarah’s Key

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Godfather Part II