Saturday, May 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Amerikatsi’ Brings Armenian Cinema to a New Audience

Director: Michael A. Goorjian
Writers: Michael A. Goorjian
Stars: Michael A. Goorjian, Hovik Keuchkerian, Nelli Uvarova

Synopsis: Charlie escapes the Armenian genocide as a boy by fleeing to the United States, but he returns as an adult and is arrested. He watches an Armenian couple from his prison cell, finally learning about his homeland.

During the lengthy period in which the Cold War raged on, the tensions between the Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc figured prominently in a number of Hollywood blockbusters. For most, the slightly jingoistic action films of the 1980s serve as the most obvious example of anti-Soviet propaganda. Top Gun (1986) and Red Heat (1988) heavily emphasized the fact that Soviets were unemotional, robotic killing machines who lacked warmth and psychological depth. In thinking back on this period, we tend to forget about the light, fluffy comedies that attempted to view Soviet politics through a satirical lens. They were often guilty of presenting a somewhat glib analysis of the ideological and cultural differences that separate Americans from their Soviet counterparts but they serve as valuable socio-historical documents. In the modern day, the average American’s perception of post-Soviet states has radically altered, so it’s more than a little surprising to see a contemporary film that echoes the thematic concerns of Moscow on the Hudson (1985). 

In mounting a highly sentimental, feel-good comedy about the clash between American and Soviet Armenian culture, director Michael A. Goorjian must have known that he was out of step with the times. Here, he attempts to construct a delicate fable about a naïve American Charlie Bakchinyan (Michael A. Goorjian), who repatriates to Armenia in the wake of World War II. He has Armenian ancestors but his family was forced to flee Turkey during the Armenian Genocide. While in Armenia, he hopes to gain a deeper understanding of his cultural identity. He is placed in peril after befriending Sona (Nelli Uvarova), the wife of a powerful government official. As a result of this innocent flirtation, he is imprisoned on bogus charges. Initially, he responds to being isolated from the outside world by growing despondent. However, his spirits begin to improve when he realizes that he can observe the day-to-day life of a young couple living in an apartment that is located across the street from the prison. 

The plot of the film is pretty standard Hollywood fare but Goorjian makes an admirable effort to inject the story’s skeleton structure with dashes of Armenian dark humor. He casts himself as an archetypal wide-eyed American but finds room to complicate the binary between freedom-loving Americans and overly censorious Armenians. Most of the Armenian characters in the film are viewed through a sympathetic lens and while the film doesn’t offer up a sophisticated dissection of the political corruption that plagued Armenian society during this period, it thankfully avoids indulging in too many stereotypes. Then again, you can’t blame the viewers who yearn for a more dense, thematically complex picture, that might have included a more intellectually rigorous critique of Stalinist policies. 

Amerikatsi’s virtues really come to the fore during lengthy sequences in which Nerses Sedrakyan and Avet Tonoyants’s production design is allowed to take center stage. They have clearly taken great pains to accurately represent era-appropriate interior design trends and color schemes. One naturally assumes that they weren’t working with a massive budget, so it’s very impressive that they managed to invest every location featured in the film with so much texture and pathos. All of this effort also helps to infuse a relatively conventional plot with a much-needed personal touch. This sort of skilled craftsmanship is often undervalued and there is something appealing about the fact that the imagery in this film has a tactile, visceral quality that is missing from a lot of modern cinema. You can tell when something has been precisely constructed and the ‘little things’ really do play a role in elevating Amerikatsi beyond some of the limitations that typically hold period pieces back. 

There is also something to be said for the small scale that the film operates on, as Goorjian could never be accused of overstuffing the plot. The languid, measured pacing ensures that scenes play out in a naturalistic fashion and largely avoid straining for effect. He finds a delicate balance between mainstream comedy and culturally specific comedic references, without sacrificing the opportunity to jerk tears out of audience members. It’s not going to revolutionize Armenia cinema but it might go a long way in bringing elements of their national cinema to a wider audience. 

Grade: B-

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