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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Kinyarwanda


Kinyarwanda

A Lieutenant Rose by any other name doth smelleth sweet.

(2011) Drama (Visigoth) Edouard Bamporiki, Cassandra Freeman, Marc Gwamaka, Zaninka Hadidja, Mursari Jean, Cleophas Kabasita, Hassan Kabera, Mazimpaka Kennedy, Assumpta Micho, Kena Onyenjekwe, Edouard B. Uwayo. Directed by Alrick Brown

In 1994, the nation of Rwanda underwent 100 days of madness in which one ethnic group tried to wipe another off the face of the earth, and did it largely without any notice from the Western governments or media. It’s a crying rotten shame they don’t have any oil there or chances are we’d have been in there guns blazing.

There have been other motion pictures based on the events of that horrible summer, but unlike the Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda this movie aims not to tell you a single story, but to share several stories of those who lived through the genocide.

The Grand Mosque in Kigali became a refuge for Tutsi and Hutu, Christian and Muslim alike. The Mufti of Rwanda (Jean) argues that the Koran requires that they offer shelter to those who require it. There is some dissension among his Imams, not all of whom agree with his interpretation but at last consensus is reached.

Jeanne (Hadidja) sneaks out of her house to attend a party where she meets up with her erstwhile boyfriend Patrique (Gwamaka). While Jeanne is too proper to allow even a good night kiss, it is clear she has strong feelings for him and him for her. He walks her home, past what appears to be a Hutu militia about to murder a group of Tutsis. Their leader Emmanuel (Bamporiki) waves at Patrique who waves back, and then quickly ushers Jeanne, a half-Tutsi, down a back alley so that she can sneak back into her house, which is ominously quiet and dark. When she switches on the lights, she discovers that her parents have both been murdered.

The Hutu Militia are hot on the trail of the priest Father Pierre (Kennedy) whom they refer to on the radio as Father Cockroach (the Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches by the Hutus on the radio, which blared anti-Tutsi propaganda non-stop for the entire length of the Genocide and urged listeners to chop up any Tutsi they encountered – machetes were the most common form of execution during the Genocide). He has taken refuge in a church but is betrayed by the Hutu priest, along with the dozens of Tutsi refugees inside. He flees along with several other refugees but they are ultimately captured. However, they are fortunately rescued by a woman reputed to be a witch and quickly shepherded to the nearest Mosque whose Imam is sympathetic. However, his mosque doesn’t have the facilities or the supplies to shelter everyone there, so the decision is made that they must go to the Grand Mosque, which they do but not without cost.

Lt. Rose (Freeman) trained in the Rwandan army in Uganda where they were exiled, but was leading her troops back into her native land to try and put an end to the Genocide and save as many people as she can. She develops a camaraderie with Sgt. Fred (Onyenjekwe), who is married with a baby on the way. They discuss their reasons for fighting and he has some very compelling reasons on his mind.

Little Ishmael (Kabera) is sent by his father to the corner grocery. On the way home he encounters a group of militiamen who are upset and irate that they can’t find guns or Tutsi. Ishmael informs them that he knows exactly where these can be found and leads them to his own home.

Years afterwards, those who committed the atrocities were sent to camps where they were made to confess their crimes and come to repent their awful deeds. For some, they could only manage silence. Others were so traumatized that rather than live with their shame they took their own lives. Finally, some found the grace of forgiveness.

This is a powerful, moving experience. I was astonished to discover that this was director Alrick Brown’s first feature-length film; he shows the deft hand of someone who’s been at it for decades. The movie is presented in a non-linear fashion, weaving the stories together in much the same way as Crash or Babel, so it required a firm hand in the editing bay – or bedroom, as Brown revealed during a Q&A following the screening, which is where he and NYU student Tovah Leibowitz edited the film.

Many of the cast members were Rwandans, who lived through the events of those 100 days, and it couldn’t have been easy for them to relive them; it takes a director with a great sense for his actor’s emotional state to make it work. The script was essentially written from true stories collected by the producers and the director from Rwandans and eventually combined; as Brown explained it, he didn’t have enough time to write a feature film so he wrote several short films instead and wove them into a whole.

This isn’t a movie you merely watch; it’s something you experience and it will undoubtedly stay with you for the rest of your life. That human beings can do such things to one another is entirely incomprehensible but despite what you might think, this isn’t a movie about genocide and depravity. It’s a movie about forgiveness and reconciliation; that Rwanda is moving as quickly as it has to reuniting the two ethnic groups who share a common language (which is the title of the movie) – albeit that the ethnic groups were essentially created by the Belgians who colonized the country – is nothing short of a miracle.

I don’t hand out perfect ratings lightly and it often requires a great deal of soul searching for me to finally decide a movie worthy of that rating. Not so here – it was an immediate and necessary response to the movie. I honestly hope and pray this movie finds a major distributor because it so deserves to be seen by a wide audience. If a major studio had this, you can bet there would be Oscar buzz aplenty for the film, and for actress Zaninka Hadidja who turns in a riveting performance as Jeanne.

The movie is playing again on Tuesday, April 12 at the Regal Winter Park Village in Winter Park, Florida at 6:30pm and I urge anyone in the Orlando area to make an effort to go see this remarkable film. And if anyone reading this works for a theatrical distributor, I would urge you highly to look into acquiring this film for distribution. It may not necessarily pull in a box office bonanza, but considering how low the production costs were it could be profitable with little or no effort – and could conceivably be a huge blockbuster if people take to it the way I did.

It was a bit of a somber occasion upon viewing the movie at the Florida Film Festival; Assistant director Steve Ntosi had unexpectedly and tragically passed away just the day before, to which we here at Cinema365 extend our deepest sympathies. It also is appropriate that the screening took place during a week when Rwanda was in mourning in remembrance of the 17th anniversary of the Genocide.

This is a movie that could never have been made by a studio. It is clearly a project of passion, made by people committed to sharing not only the stories of survival, but the overall hope for reconciliation that permeates Rwanda to this day. One cannot help be moved by it but also be inspired by it as well. While the subject matter may sound like a downer, I left the theater feeling uplifted. Man has an endless capacity for cruelty but also an amazing capacity for forgiveness – that is what makes our future worth fighting for.

REASONS TO GO: An amazing motion picture event that deserves a wider audience than it’s likely to get.

REASONS TO STAY: If the genocide hits too close to home.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is perhaps too intense for the youngest sorts, and there is a bit of violence and implied rape.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot on location in Rwanda in just 16 days using mostly local cast and crew.

HOME OR THEATER: This is a movie that deserves to be seen with a crowd – a big crowd.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: 13 Assassins