As of today, 66 countries and territories have submitted their entries to the Academy to compete for the Oscar for International Feature. The field is filling up fast, and I’m aggressively hunting for any hint of release data for as many as possible. I swear if I ever get to join AMPAS, I will just live on their private hub site watching every single one of these as they get uploaded.
Today’s hopeful is Amerikatsi (or The American in English), put forth by Armenia. Written by, directed, and starring Michael A. Goorjian (probably best known for his recurring role as Justin on Party of Five), the film is a loving, life-affirming look at one of the darker periods in recent world history, centered in a land that’s had more than its fair share of hardship. Filled to bursting with good humor and light-hearted ambition, Goorjian’s tribute to his ancestral home country may be a fair bit derivative, but the positive intentions are far more crucial.
Set after World War II, Goorjian plays Charlie Bakhchinyan, who was smuggled out of his village during the Armenian Genocide and was raised by adoptive parents in New York. When the war ended, Joseph Stalin invited expatriated Armenians to return, as the country was now a Soviet state, and Charlie seizes the opportunity in hopes of learning about his culture and finding any relatives who might have survived. All he has are flashes of memory and the tune of a lullaby his grandmother sang to him as a child.
Through sheer chance, Charlie is at the right place at the right time to rescue a small boy from a stampeding bread line, and meets the boy’s mother, Sona (Nelli Uvarova), the wife of a powerful commander in the Communist Party. As he speaks almost no Armenian and absolutely no Russian, Sona takes pity on Charlie and offers to help him, using her connections to get him a job and a stable home. However, husband Dmitry (Mikhail Trukin) is instantly distrustful of Charlie, and instead has him arrested in the middle of the night on suspicion of espionage. Of the particularly silly trumped up charges, Charlie is accused of displaying religious propaganda by crossing himself at the dinner table and of promoting capitalist elitism by wearing a necktie with his suit. Through a combination of the language barrier and miscommunication due to Dmitry’s own lackadaisical authoritarianism, Charlie unknowingly confesses to being a spy and is sentenced to 10 years of prison and hard labor.
There’s a delightful innocence to Charlie’s naivete, with the character sort of drifting from one scenario to the next in the early going. His wide-eyed mannerisms are noticed even by the prison staff, who derisively (at first) nickname him, “Charlie Chaplin,” and you can certainly see shades of the silent film star in the way Goorjian moves about the frame. It’s fitting in a way, as he played Charlie Jr. in Chaplin in his early 20s, so I’m certain a few of the affectations — as well as Robert Downey Jr.’s performance — rubbed off on him a bit. But even as realization dawns on him and he learns that this isn’t just a misunderstanding, that charming sense of positivity endures, much like it did for Andy Dufresne in the lighter moments of The Shawshank Redemption. When you truly know that you’ve done nothing wrong, that objective fact creates its own version of hope to cling to, and that gets characters like Andy and Charlie through the days, waiting for the time when they will be exonerated and see freedom once again.
For Andy, the means to that end were his friendship with Red, his intelligence and decency that ingratiated him to the warden and guards, and his secret incremental tunneling out of the prison. For Charlie, it’s in the unusual and indirect way he ends up learning about his cultural heritage in spite of his injustice. In the overcrowded prison, he’s put into a cell dubbed “The Icebox” because it’s mainly used for storage, and its one barred window has no glass, making for very cold winters. Initially set to be transferred to a Siberian work camp, an earthquake topples part of the prison’s outside wall, so he and the other Armenian repatriates (so much for being welcomed home) are tasked with rebuilding. However, the hole in the wall gives Charlie a unique sight line to the outside world from his cell, and at night, he’s able to look into a nearby house occupied by one of the guards, Tigran (Hovik Keuchkerian) and his wife Ruzan (Narine Grigoryan).
Through them Charlie is able to vicariously experience the Armenian home life he came back for. He sees their highs and lows as a couple, their family celebrations, and even Tigran’s love of art, which inspires Charlie himself to collect various materials to do his own makeshift paintings and decorate the cell. This endears him to the entire prison community, as at first they dismiss him as going insane but then warm to his basic goodness, and eventually leads to his chance at salvation. One of the better recurring images is the way Charlie sets up the cell to serve as a redux home theatre by propping up his cot, rigging up a system of pulleys to allow him to sit and eat level with the elevated window, and provide his own running commentary as he watches Tigran’s events unfold. It is an almost saccharine degree of sweetness and charm.
Almost as inspirational is the way that most of the characters are treated with a warm degree of humanity. There’s an understanding, much like Kenneth Branagh showed in Belfast, that the way people adjusted to these impossible situations was not monolithic. Sona knows she’s the beneficiary of a patently unfair system that allows her to live a protected life of luxury despite the supposed communist ideals, yet she keeps up appearances and asserts her own agency (even when Dmitry openly mocks her Armenian roots) because she believes in doing what’s right by as many people as possible. Tigran had to compromise his artistic ambitions for the sake of his life and his family, but he still holds on to this one shred of his individualism even in his worst moments. When the guards are given orders to beat and torture Charlie, they feel true remorse and try to find ways to make amends around the margins. Even Dmitry, shitheel though he can be, does genuinely want to figure out how to help Charlie after he discovers his blunder, so long as it’s in a way that can ensure he saves face in a system where everyone is replaceable in an instant (see The Death of Stalin for the farcical extreme of this idea).
It’s because of this that Charlie is able to carry himself with grace and not hold a grudge. There’s a scene late in the film where the unseen relationship between him and Tigran comes to a depressing head. We can all see it coming, and we know that it has to happen, both for the sake of the story and artistic honesty. But that doesn’t change the heartbreaking looks in Keuchkerian and Goorjian’s eyes when the moment arrives. There’s an innate understanding of the sacrifices that are made, voluntary or no, for the ultimate goal of living in peace, and while this movie is on the whole bright and uplifting, it doesn’t shy away from the darkness necessary for the light to eventually come.
Yes, there are sequences and themes that tread more than familiar territory. Hell, this isn’t even the first picture this year to feature its main character doing a Chaplin routine. However, the earnestness can’t be denied, and as the world is forced to reckon with revisionist history and fascism’s resurgence, stories like Amerikatsi are poignant, necessary reminders of what has come before, even in a fictional, dramatic context. Goorjian more than accomplishes his goal of honoring his heritage and his family by giving audiences (particularly American ones, as about a third of the dialogue is in English, which is still enough for eligibility in the category) an accessible starting point to learn, appreciate, and embrace the trials that all people go through.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you tracked down any International Feature candidates? How would you survive in prison? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for more content!