‘Songs of Solomon’ Review: A Clumsy Rendering of Key Chapter of Armenian History

The eminent Armenian composer Komitas, born Soghomon (Westernized as Solomon), clumsily flits in and out of Arman Nshanian’s “Songs of Solomon,” his figure used as a historical marker in a drama designed to draw attention to the Hamidian massacres perpetrated against the Armenians in the 1890s. Despite the shocking number of deaths, estimated at between 200,000 to 300,000, the atrocities tend to receive little attention when compared with the Armenian Genocide two decades later, so while any focus is welcome, it’s deeply frustrating that “Songs” does it so poorly. Ineptly plotted and criminally slapdash in its history, “Songs” is heritage patriotism at its most prosaic, making it a natural for submission as Armenia’s foreign Oscar candidate. Less understandable is Nick Vallelonga’s involvement as producer.

The story is narrated by Sevil (Arevik Gevorgyan), a fictionalized Turkish woman who, together with her Armenian chum Sona, befriends Soghomon in 1881 when they’re all children in the western Anatolian town of Kütahya (also known as Koutina). This was a time, she tells us, when Armenians and Turks all got along splendidly, though the statement is unironically contradicted a couple of scenes later when we see schoolchildren tormenting Soghomon (Slava Seyranyan) for his ethnicity.

The boy is a poor orphan — a fact frequently repeated — living with his blind grandmother (Shake Toukhmanian) who’s instilled in him a love of music. His prodigious melodic memory and fine singing voice draw the attention of the local archbishop (Jean-Pier Nshanian), and he’s sent to the seminary in Etchmiadzin for music and religious training.

Fast forward 13 years, and Sevil’s fiancé Osman (the director, Arman Nshanian) warns her that anti-Armenian sentiment is running high so she should distance herself from Sona (Tatev Hovakimyan) and her new husband, the potter Sarkis (Sos Janibekyan). She scoffs at the idea, but then the wicked Ottoman colonel Abdullah (Artashes Aleksanyan) comes to town sowing fear, destroying Sarkis’ ceramics and subjecting him to a beating. Sultan Abdülhamid II’s new orders are to root out the Armenians, and notwithstanding an attempt by the soon-strangled mayor (Davit Hakobyan) to dissuade the officials, a roundup is begun, the Armenian quarter is set alight, and the Hamidian massacres enflame Kütahya.

The problem is, the Hamidian massacres never reached Kütahya, and the town, long an important center of Armenian ceramic work, was spared the carnage. Not only that, but during World War I when the Genocide began, the Ottoman district governor Faik Ali Ozansoy risked his life to protect Armenians of the region and has since been labeled one of the “Righteous.” Given that the massacres and the Genocide, historical realities, are still contested by the Turkish government, it behooves anyone recreating the period to tread carefully when tinkering with the facts; doing otherwise does the Armenian cause a major disservice.

Historical license can of course be welcome — the whole Sevil/Sona story is fictional, and a skilled writer could have made it come alive — but “Songs of Solomon” wants to have it both ways, lightly grafting the real Soghomon onto an invented tale while cloaking itself in the righteousness of truth. In his director’s statement, Nshanian writes, “The atrocities in this film are 100% dreadful yet sadly 100% accurate,” but this claim to accuracy is disingenuous, as is the ridiculous, gratuitously offensive allegation, spoken by Sarkis, that the Turks have no culture.

Soghomon as an adult (Samvel Tadevossian) is more an occasional offscreen presence than a genuine character, and the film ends with his arrest in 1915 in Istanbul (he survived the Genocide, but the trauma left an indelible mark and from 1919 until his death in 1935 he lived in an asylum in France). Unfortunately the film makes weak use of his influential music. Visually, “Songs” looks like an extended re-enactment from a second-rate history program, the kind that always has a smoke machine just off-screen to provide atmosphere when the evil guy approaches.

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