SONGS OF SOLOMON
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Arman Nshanian
Writer: Audrey Gevorkian, Sylvia Kavoikjian
Cast: Samvel Tadevosian, Arman Nshanian, Sos Janibekyan, Arevik Gevorgyan, Tatev Hovakimyan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/31/21
Every year that I taught high school history, someone in the class would ask why Jews have been oppressed by so many different cultures in so many different centuries. There are many reasons, all of them irrational, but the principal reason today is that during periods of extreme nationalism, the folks who are in the minority of a country’s ethnic or racial minority are in danger of being considered “the other.” They are different from the majority, and may be in a minority so small that they can easily be persecuted. They are scapegoated for society’s problems, though they had nothing to do with those dilemmas. In fact it was not until the founding of the state of Israel that Jews could live in a country where they are the majority and therefore free from being marginalized.
Similarly, the Armenians in the Ottoman (Turkish-dominated) Empire, were also in a minority. They are Christians; the Turks are Muslims. When the Ottomans found themselves in World War One, they used Armenians as scapegoats, “blaming” them for their contributions to architecture, music, cultural life in general, and acumen for business. In fact they were called by some the Jews of Turkey. In 1915, the Turks exterminated 1.5 million Armenians, though less is known about the pogrom against these Christian in 1894 when 300,000 were murdered. When Nazi government officials in the 1930s and 1940s were concerned that the world might condemn them for their genocidal pogroms against Jews, Hitler said: “Who remembers the massacre of Armenians?”
Well, then, movies like this one will certainly help to remind non-Armenians as well about the oppression, but don’t count your breath. A poll indicated that 40% of Americans never heard even of the Nazi Holocaust. In any case, “Songs of Solomon” is a worthy addition to the celluloid literature of the subject of genocide, joining others like “Nahapet,” ‘Mayrig,” “Ararat,” “The Cut,” “The Lark Farm,” “Dzori Miro,” “Map of Salvation,” “1915,” “Aram,” and “Do Not Tell Me the Boy was Mad.” The actors use exaggerated facial expressions as though in a silent movie, but I suspect the reason director Arman Nshanian evoked such exaggerated emotions is that he wants the film to appeal to a youthful audience.
Nshanian, in his freshman full-length film narrative (he is primarily an actor who takes a principal role here) leads us from the murders in 1894 to the more horrific ones in 1915, going back and forth in a film that in my opinion would have been better if told chronologically. This is a biographical look at Komitas Vardabet aka Solomon, credited with saving Armenian music, singing songs with an exquisite voice. The story opens before the dreaded year of 1894 when Solomon, an Armenian Christian who is a frail, gentle orphan with a blind grandmother, becomes best friends with two girls his own age. One is Sevil who is Turkish. She is friends with Sono, an Armenian. When Solomon sings to them, an Armenian archbishop believes that Solomon’s voice is a gift from God, and puts him into a seminary, which may have been responsible for saving his life.
When Sevil is married thirteen years later, her Turkish husband (played by the director) wants her not to associate with Armenians because “something bad is going to happen to them.” What follows appears to imitate the trajectory of Nazi anti-Semitism in Germany, as Nazi thugs break windows of Jewish stores, bully Jews on the street, and make them wear patches to signal their Jewishness. A Turkish colonel, played with glee, becomes the chief villain, always speaking softly, smiling with contempt, playing with his Armenian victors before letting his goons beat them to death. The most riveting scene, in fact, occurs when this colonel taunts the family harboring the Armenian woman Sono, reminding cinephiles of similar doings when in “Inglourious Basterds,” Col. Hans Lada played by Christoph Waltz, toys with a French farmer who is hiding a family of Jews.
Though “Songs of Solomon” has an excellent group of Armenian extras, it has a budget smaller than that of movies like “1915,” and that’s just fine. We in the audience have the privilege of knowing more than today’s Turks seem to know about the genocides (Turks who made their truer opinions known about the genocide are subject to arrest). It’s pitiful that though Germans today freely acknowledge the role of Nazis in their history, the Turks continue to hide facts about these tragic events. This film thereby joins the others in bringing the truth to light.
“Songs of Solomon” is the Armenian entry competing in our 93rd Academy Awards, though it has tough competition from “Minari,” which I think will be chosen. Anthony J. Rickert-Epstein filmed in Armenia. The film is in Armenian with English subtitles.
103 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B-
Technical – B+
Overall – B