In 2015 the victims of the Armenian Genocide—long referred to as martyrs—were formally acknowledged as Christian saints, as the world marked the passage of a century since their suffering. Authorities of the Armenian Church proceeded with the canonization ceremony despite some indeterminacy about the precise number of saints being identified, on the assumption that clarity would arise over time.
Nevertheless, with the Armenian Church having identified Christian martyrdom as the deepest meaning of the Armenian Genocide, it’s worth considering how, and to what extent, this theme arises in a new film set during the Genocide, The Promise. While the centuries-old Christian faith of the Armenians resonates throughout the film and is portrayed respectfully, an explicit depiction of martyrdom did not seem present to me at first. On consideration, however, sacrificial death is depicted in an interesting way, faithful to an enduring motif in Armenian Christian spirituality.
I saw The Promise on its opening weekend out of a sense of ethnic duty, with little in the way of expectations. To my surprise, the film absorbed my full attention almost immediately. What drew me in at first was its depiction of place: life in an Armenian mountain village—something I’ve long imagined but never seen—followed by the cosmopolitan marvels of Constantinople—“Bolis”—with its material and cultural graces I knew from family stories.
In brisk succession, The Promise proceeded to hit the main “beats” of Genocide history: the Turkish elites’ sudden turn to cruelty against Armenians; the ominous presence of German military advisors; the proto-Kristallnacht of April 24, 1915; the last stand of a group of refugees on the mountain stronghold of Musa Dagh. I became rapt in the film’s recreation of the Genocide’s iconic imagery (hungry orphans, a slave labor camp, a boxcar of deportees, crucified victims in a depopulated Armenian town), along with its personalities (the tragic Fr. Komitas, the heroic Ambassador Morgenthau, the inhuman Talaat Pasha).
These details are background to the plot of The Promise: a love triangle involving Mikael, a medical student from the Armenian provinces; Ana, a cosmopolitan Armenian beauty; and Chris, a crusading American reporter. Their serial scrapes with death and missed connections intersect with the historical episodes of the Genocide.
As an Armenian steeped in this history, I had feared that a theatrical treatment would deal in a salacious way with the horrifying violence of the Genocide. But the filmmakers were remarkably restrained, mindful of not repeating on the screen the violations of human dignity that actually occurred in history. I was heartened by the evident respect shown both to the memory of the victims and to the sensibilities of the audience.
Despite such satisfactions, the idea of martyrdom, so important to the church’s understanding of the events of 1915, remains indistinct in The Promise. Where might it be found?
An answer began to materialize for me when I asked: What exactly is “the promise” of the title? Several vows or promises arise in the course of the action: there’s a promise to a betrothed, a promise to return home, a wedding vow, a vow of revenge, a promise to follow self-actualizing romantic love.
All of these come undone as events conspire against the main characters; we are left with only one that emerges as the promise by virtue of its fulfillment: Mikael’s promise to care for his niece, the sole survivor of the family’s younger generation.
Now I fully expected the story of the lovers to resolve itself in a “Hollywood” manner. At a critical moment in the film, Ana comforts Mikael with the thought that “Our revenge will be to survive”—clearly meant to refer to the reward of romantic love the two hope to enjoy. But when this hope is drawn beneath the waves, Mikael seems to negate his pursuit of self-actualizing love, sacrificing personal fulfillment to protect and nourish his orphaned niece. The film’s brief coda, occurring some 20 years after Mikael’s escape, makes no mention of his ever having married, accentuating the fact that he has dutifully sacrificed this part of his own life in exchange for the life of a child.
This ethic of personal sacrifice for the sake of children seems to me a quintessentially Armenian quality. I distinguish it from simple affection for children, which is widespread. Sacrifice for children—adults accepting death on their behalf—is a frequent theme in Armenian history, and certainly in testimonies of the Genocide. It is by no means an ethic exclusive to Armenians (in the film, an Armenian village pastor and an American missionary both risk their lives to rescue orphans). But neither is it a universal human ethic in a world where child neglect, exploitation, and endangerment are all too common.
Interestingly, it was not always an ethic even among the Armenians. Armenia’s first Christian martyr, the royal princess Sandukht, was the victim of something like an honor killing. Behind the storybook details of kings and courtiers, the tale of a humiliated father’s lethal reaction to the defiance of his Christian-convert daughter reveals a dark truth about the ethos of pagan Armenia.
But that ethos would change under the aspect of Christianity. The Promise depicts the difference that 2,000 years of Christian faith has made in the Armenian consciousness, fostering a spirit of Christian sacrifice that lives so deep in the soul that it barely receives acknowledgment. Mikael’s sacrificial “death” is metaphorical, but it sums up the countless all-too-literal sacrifices willingly chosen during the Genocide.
“Let the children to come to me,” said Jesus, in one of the Gospel’s most surprising lines (Mt 19:14). How sharply it contrasts against his apocalyptic pronouncements, with its assurance that no matter how imminent the eschaton may be, we will always be responsible for the wellbeing of the next generation.
Jesus also warned those who sin against children: “It would be better to have a great millstone fastened round the neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Mt 18:6). Ironically, The Promise shows an almost identical doom for Ana, who drowns not as punishment for sin but as a tragic result of her loving sacrifice for a child.
That the film’s spirit of beauty and purity of heart should die in this manner might be seen as another comment on the theme of Christian martyrdom as it applies to the suffering Armenians endured a century ago. A world in which the Genocide can occur offers no assurances, other than faith, that our acts of sacrifice will be vindicated. Christ promised us a kingdom where justice prevails, and “in which righteousness dwells”; but the fulfillment of that promise will have to “wait for a new heaven, and a new earth” (cf. 2 Peter 3:13).
Christopher H. Zakian is the director of communications for the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, in New York.