Can there be anything more depressing than a movie about The Holocaust? Well, this one about the Armenian Genocide could give that a run for the money. Though certain Turkish nationalist groups over the years that have blocked Hollywood from making a major film about the horrific events of 1915, Kirk Kerkorian, the Armenian-American philanthropist, who died in 1915, set up his own film company 3 years earlier to make sure it finally got done.

Fussy historians might have some trouble with the film, as its main characters and a romantic triangle story are fictional, but it’s all set against real events, locations, and themes. Regular moviegoers will get wrapped up in its powerful emotionality and performances. In 1914, a young Armenian man named Mikael (Oscar Isaac) lives in a small half Turkish-half Armenian village in Southern Turkey. His dream is to study medicine. In order to afford the schooling in Constantinople (now Istanbul), he agrees to marry Maral (Angela Sarafyan), a young woman in his village, then use the dowry for his tuition.

Arriving in the big city, he’s invited to stay with his wealthy uncle. As luck -- and a Hollywood script -- would have it, his uncle has another guest, the artist Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who’s staying there with her boyfriend, the American journalist Chris (Christian Bale). Ana, it turns out, is Armenian and comes from a small village. While Mikael is busy being struck almost senseless by her beauty, she says to him, “You make me feel like I’m home.”

But before he can fall head over heels, before she has to make up her mind about the man she already loves, the historical aspects of the film jump out at them. This takes place on the eve of WWI, and Germany has just given battleships to the Turkish Navy. Chris, who realizes what’s going on, brashly speaks out against the Turks and Germans, right to their faces. It’s a scene that Christian Bale was meant to play, and he does it with gusto.

But things are already beginning to go wrong for any Armenians in the city and elsewhere, purportedly because they believed Armenians were being sympathetic to Russia, a country that was not on the right side of Turkey and Germany. Gangs of young Turks take to the streets to burn Armenian shops and beat up people. With Chris out searching for examples of atrocities committed by Turks, and getting photos when he finds them, Mikael and Ana find themselves being drawn together. But she’s with Chris, and he’s betrothed to Maral. What are they to do?

The political situation tears them apart, with Mikael being forced, with other Armenian labor, to build a railroad for the Turks under grueling and inhuman conditions. Though he catches a lucky break, a desperate attempt to get back to his village leads to one of the film’s most harrowing and expertly done sequences: His discovery of a train carrying carloads of Armenian prisoners, with their hands reaching through slats, obviously on the way to their deaths.

Yet Mikael also finds some happiness when he gets back to Maral. The same can’t be said of Ana, who has stayed with Chris after falsely being told that Mikael had died. But since this is about a love triangle, it’s no surprise that everyone reconnects. The momentum of the film gets a little off track when it takes on a different part of the story, that of Chris trying to aid missionaries who are smuggling orphans out of the country safely. It’s then that complications for everyone set in.

As if there isn’t already enough peril, the script turns to the real-life battle of Musa Dagh, during which a large group of Armenians mounted a resistance against a much larger group of Turkish soldiers that had them surrounded. An extra dose of emotional drama takes over near the end when a French battleship helps Armenians escape from the onslaught.

This is a sad but compelling film. Turkish nationalists who still claim there was no Armenian Genocide are going to hate it. Anyone with even a shred of intelligence and open hearts and minds is going to praise it and be moved by it.

-- Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.

“The Promise”
Written by Terry George and Robin Swicord; directed by Terry George
With Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Angela Sarafyan
Rated PG-13