THE STORY – 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.
THE CAST – Michael A. Goorjian, Hovik Keuchkerian & Nelli Uvarova
THE TEAM – Michael A. Goorjian (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 121 Minutes
Given the state of the film business today, the odds that a film from Armenia would reach American movie screens would be low, and a plot about life under Soviet rule just after World War II would make those odds even lower. And the fact that it’s a comedy? Almost impossible. But somehow, Armenian-American actor Michael A. Goorjian has pulled it off with “Amerikatsi,” Armenia’s first-ever shortlisted Oscar entry for Best International Feature.
Writer, director, and star Goorjian, whose grandparents survived the Armenian genocide in World War I, doesn’t shy away from the country’s troubled past. Beginning “Amerikatsi” with a view of the 1915 Armenian Genocide through the eyes of a young boy being smuggled off to safety, who watches through a peephole as his mother is gunned down by Ottoman troops.
Decades later, that boy — now named Charlie Bakhchinyan (Goorjian) — has returned to Armenia, thanks to Stalin’s offer to welcome displaced Armenian citizens living abroad to their homeland. Recently widowed and living in Poughkeepsie, NY, Charlie is looking for a fresh start and is anxious to explore his barely-remembered Armenian roots, even as the country is now under Soviet rule. A chance encounter with Sona (Nelli Uvarova), a local Armenian, leads to an introduction to her husband, Soviet military commander Dmitry (Mikhail Trukhin), who agrees to Sona’s request to help Charlie find a job. Pressured to increase his quota of prisoners, however, Dmitry instead has Charlie arrested for the crime of “cosmopolitanism” — all because Charlie was wearing a polka dot tie.
With such tricky material, Goorjian runs into some early trouble establishing just what tone to set for the story to come. Charlie’s New York Jewish schnook caught in an unfamiliar land suggests a classic fish-out-of-water setup reminiscent of early Woody Allen comedies. At the same time, his antics behind bars give off the same mawkish “clown-in-a-prison-camp” vibes that recall the worst of Roberto Benigni. This uncertainty of tone portends trouble ahead for “Amerikatsi.”
It is then that Goorjian, who both wrote and directed the film, offers a twist that spins the narrative into a risky but ultimately satisfying direction. Once the restless Charlie settles into his cell and jerry-rigs a way to look out of his high cell block window, he notices an Armenian couple — Tigran (Hovik Keuchkerian) and Ruzan (Narine Gigoryan) — going about their daily life in an apartment directly across the way. Observing them as they eat, bicker, and reconcile, he is soon irresistibly drawn into the daily drama of their world. From a distance, Charlie begins studying their rituals — the order of events in a formal religious dinner, for example — which he then acts out alone in his cell. Ironically, it takes being sent to prison for Charlie to learn what it really means to be an Armenian.
It’s striking that when “Amerikatsi” becomes less visually cinematic, it becomes so much more dramatically involving. In the film’s first act, Charlie is the proactive center of attention, but after the narrative twist, what Charlie does is simply observed, and we’re drawn all that much closer to him. It may be one of the most effective reactive performances since James Stewart in “Rear Window,” whose voyeuristic character is not so unlike Charlie.
He is our surrogate up there on the screen. When Charlie slightly raises an eyebrow over something he sees in the apartment, we also become anxious to see it. When he moves closer to the bars on his cell to get a better look, we lean in as well. It’s a wonderful piece of acting by Goorjian, who says a lot by doing very little. And when Charlie finally speaks up to help Tigran, it leads to a silent face-to-face meeting with serious, unforeseen consequences for both men.
Even if, as a vehicle, “Amerikatsi” is at times less than perfect, Goorjian’s use of humor and a bold narrative structure brings us closer to the Armenian people than any staid historical storyline ever could. And that, after all, might be his point in making “Amerikatsi” — that by honoring the courage and humanity of his forebears, he has set the decency and resilience of Armenians as a shining example of how to stay strong against those who try to repress your freedom.