An uncompromising look at the horrors of the Armenian genocide

Providence Journal
Aug 1 2009

An uncompromising look at the horrors of the Armenian genocide

01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, August 2, 2009
By Michael Janusonis
Journal Arts Writer

The 13th Rhode Island International Film Festival officially begins
its six-day run Tuesday night with a gala at the Providence Performing
Arts Center, followed by a series of short films on the giant
screen. But it will actually kick off Monday with a couple of special
screenings: a 10 a.m. showing of Monsters Vs. Aliens 3-D at Providence
Place Cinemas and a 6:30 p.m. screening at the Columbus Theater of
Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s 2007 historical epic The Lark Farm.

Despite its bucolic name, The Lark Farm is an uncompromising look at
the horrors of the Armenian genocide launched by the Turks in 1915,
when World War I was going badly for them. The massacre was carried
out amidst fears that the substantial Christian Armenian population,
who had always been second-class citizens in the Muslim Ottoman
Empire, was going to join the Russians who were fighting the Turks in
the war.

During the genocide, which began in 1915, many Armenian men were
arrested and killed. The women and children were deported to a desert
region near the Syrian border, though many of them perished during the
forced marches. In the end, it is estimated that between 1 million and
1.5 million Armenians died in this holocaust. Unnervingly, their story
parallels events that began two decades later in Germany when the
Nazis attempted to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

Trying to tell such a broad-based story is a daunting undertaking,
except perhaps as a documentary. But the writing-directing Tavianis,
who are in their late 70s and whose output over the decades includes
the groundbreaking Padre Padrone and Night of the Shooting Stars, made
this history very personal by focusing on one family as it struggled
to survive in an increasingly bleak and trying situation.

The Lark Farm revolves around the lives of the prosperous Avankian
family, who live in a fine house in the city and have recently
restored the big house at their homestead in the countryside, Lark
Farm, to its former ornate grandeur. But the war has broken out,
threatening the already wobbly Ottoman Empire, and the Avankians are
hearing inklings that things will not go well for the Armenians.

When the family patriarch dies at the start of the film, he warns with
his dying breath to flee, but no one pays heed. His son, Aram (Tcheky
Karyo), a wealthy businessman, believes things will pretty much
continue as they always have with just a few rough spots. His beatific
wife, Armineh (Arsinee Khanjian), puts up a brave front, but is not so
convinced. His sister, the headstrong Nunik (Paz Vega), has fallen in
love with a Turkish officer (Alessandro Preziosi), who plots to leave
the army and flee with her across the border because he has heard
rumors that bad things might come. `There’s no hope for us here. I’m a
Turk and you’re Armenian,’ he tells Nunik.

It seems like a set-up for what will be a Romeo-Juliet romance, but
The Lark Farm soon grows much darker even than that classic tale. Soon
the resentment toward the Armenians, who are seen by some Turks as a
sort of fifth column of traitors and spies, spirals out of
control. Plans are afoot to arrest the Armenian leaders quietly,
including Aram. But things quickly get out of hand when a hot-headed
officer gets involved and events slip away from the control of the
colonel who is in charge of this region. A decent man who has
befriended the Armenians, he tries to prevent the killing, but is too

The attack on the Avankians and their neighbors, who have arrived at
Lark Farm in hopes of finding refuge from the Turks, is horrific and
bloody. It sets the tone for the terrors that will follow, which will
see most of the men murdered and the women sent off on a long march
toward the desert with little food to sustain them. In desperation,
some of them turn to selling sexual favors for a loaf of bread. Others
are killed outright or left to die at the side of the road. The Lark
Farm becomes a study in human cruelty.

Cinematically, it’s powerful and yet that power is muted somewhat by
the melodramatic way events unfold on screen. The Armenians are
pictured as innocents and saints; most Turks as soulless
monsters. Some scenes and characters are overplayed. At one point, a
Turkish soldier who has arrived at the Avankian manse during their
dinner, covetously looks at a tureen that’s filled with soup, spilling
its contents on the table and making a grab for the tureen with greed
in his eyes. There are many such scenes that lack subtlety.

Nevertheless, the plight of the Avankians, whose brother in Italy
desperately attempts to raise money to get them out of Turkey, is
emotionally riveting. It expands to include the tale of a Muslim
beggar who tries to help the family, which has always been good to
him, hatching an elaborate rescue plan. It goes back to focus on Nunik
who finds herself in a camp where she falls in love with another
Turkish soldier and is involved in a selfless act to save what’s left
of her family. Vega gives a poignant performance as Nunik, who has
nowhere left to turn. She puts a face on the struggles of the Armenian
people during this dark period. ml
From: Baghdasarian