REVIEW: ‘The Promise’ is a faith-filled tale about the ‘forgotten Holocaust’

April 20th, 2017 / By: Michael Foust / comments

REVIEW: ‘The Promise’ is a faith-filled tale about the ‘forgotten Holocaust’

Mikael is a brilliant medical student living in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire and the historic multi-ethnic city that will make his dreams of becoming a doctor come true.

He’s smarter than the other students, and braver, too. The same day one of his classmates passes out while dissecting a cadaver, Mikael calmly pulls out a spleen.   

His future in the medical field seems bright, but all that changes in 1914 when the Ottomans enter World War I. Suddenly, the people he considered his friends—including his Muslim classmates—turn on him.

Mikael is part of the Armenian population, a Christian minority that had lived in harmony with the Muslims in recent years but now finds itself the target of an empire-wide cleansing. He witnesses family members being taken away and killed. Soon, he’s forced into a labor camp. Will he, and the rest of his family, survive?        

Inspired by true events, The Promise (PG-13) opens in more than 2,000 theaters this weekend, recounting an Armenian genocide that is often called the “forgotten Holocaust”—the time when 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated during and after World War I through killings, forced labor and death marches. To this day, the country of Turkey—the successor to the Ottoman Empire—denies it ever happened.

Additionally, most Americans know little about it, perhaps because we also know very little about the first World War. Filmmakers hope The Promise changes that.

The story is told through the eyes of three fictional characters, including Mikael, who is played by Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Force Awakens). He falls in love with Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an Armenian artist from Paris who is romantically involved with American photo-journalist Chris Myers (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight trilogy).

The Promise is not a faith-based film in the strict sense, although it carries a strong Christian worldview with a significant amount of faith-based dialogue.   

It’s not as graphic as Schindler's List (not even close), but it does have several scenes that discerning families will want to know about before they go. Let’s look at the details …

Warning: minor spoilers!

The Good

Jesus once said, “There is nothing covered that won’t be uncovered, nothing hidden that won’t be made known” (Luke 12:2). Wouldn’t it be tragic if 1.5 million people were killed and no one remembered or acknowledged it? The Promise, in a sense, helps to uncover the truth. It is a gripping, moving film that shines light on one of history's forgotten atrocities. And it does so with a romantic angle that keeps us engaged while we learn.

Despite the violent nature of the film (details below), faith is a major theme, and it is evident that the Armenians’ belief in Christ gave them strength. (“Praise God you’ve been spared,” Mikael’s father tells him at one point.) It has more Christian content and lines than 99 percent of other mainstream films.

Chris, an AP photographer, serves as our eyes and ears, investigating the unthinkable and refusing to buy the government line that the civilian population is being peacefully moved to a “safer” region.

Isaac, Le Bon and Bale are impressive in their roles.

The film begins strong, hits a lull in the middle, and picks up steam again in the end.

The Bad

Even though it’s not Schindler’s List, The Promise has a fair amount of violence. We see an Armenian village after it is burned, with two dead men hung in the street. Mikael fights someone in an alley, and later he is hit in the head and bloodied with a butt of a gun. A camp laborer intentionally blows up a package of dynamite, killing himself and others (bodies fly everywhere). Hundreds of bodies line a riverbank (clothed but bloodied). We see people shot in the head and executed. In the film’s final scenes, there is a battle between Armenians and Turks, with people shot and killed.  

There are a few other disturbing scenes. We see a cadaver’s abdomen open and organs pulled out. We also see a trainload of Armenians begging for someone to help.

Still, the violence stays in PG-13 territory.

The film has no nudity but a minor amount of sexuality, including one bedroom scene in which two characters kiss and she is then seen in a bra. They then kiss on the bed. Sex is implied, but the scene between the unmarried partners—unnecessary and too long—switches to a shot of them covered up the next morning. (All total, it lasts perhaps 10-15 seconds.) Characters kiss at least four other times in public. The film also contains a belly dancing scene (with some sensuality).     

Language, for this type of film, is minor: S—t (1), h--- (1), OMG (3), ba----d (1), misuse of God (1). 

The Worldview

Sometimes, truth shines brightly in the most unlikely of places. When police attacked peaceful civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965, Americans were outraged. Instead of protecting life, police had beaten and bloodied those who were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27)—and the entire nation intuitively knew it. The Promise gave me a similar feeling. The Ottoman government, which had a God-given role to protect life (Romans 13:4), was attacking its own people—including its children—simply became they were of a different ethnicity and religion. But through it all, the Armenians’ faith helped them persevere.

The Verdict: Family-Friendly?

This one’s definitely not for kids, but I’d strongly consider taking teenagers, provided they were discerning enough to handle the violent and sexual content.

Discussion Questions

Why is there so much controversy about the Armenian Genocide? Are you satisfied with how America has handled the issue in its interaction with Turkey? What is the solution to racism and bigotry? Why did the Ottomans hate the Armenians? Did Mikael truly keep his promise to his fiancé? What is the role of reporters during a war? How much freedom should they have during a war? What did you find inspiring about the Armenians?

Entertainment rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

The Promise is rated PG-13 for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and for some sexuality.