Fatih Akin’s historical epic, The Cut, is huge in almost every respect. The sweeping story of a father’s search for his lost daughters, it has magnificent scenery and momentous events, it spans several years and crosses several countries. Its only small-scale aspect, though, is the one that matters most: the emotional impact that it’s likely to have on the viewer.
It begins in a picturesque Armenian mountain town in 1915. A blacksmith named Nazaret (Tahar Rahim) is living in happy tranquility with his wife and twin daughters, and he’s doing his best not to worry about the reports he hears about the war. But everything changes when he is press-ganged into the army by the Ottoman authorities. The good news is that he isn’t sent to fight on the frontline. The bad news is that he has to break rocks in the burning desert sun. The worse news is everything else that happens to him. After years of forced labour, he learns that his family was slaughtered by the Turks, and he ends up being stabbed in the throat – the ‘cut’ of the film’s title. The injury doesn’t kill him, but it does leave him unable to speak. Yet more years pass, during which Rahim is sometimes styled to resemble Lawrence Of Arabia, and at others, to resemble Jesus: the film’s Biblical allusions are less than subtle. When the war finishes, Nazaret is just settling down to a new life when he hears that his daughters are alive, after all. Now all he has to do is find them.
If it takes a while to read about all the incidents above, it takes a lot longer to watch them. By the time Nazaret sets out in search of his daughters, we’re already halfway through the film’s two-and-a-half-hours – so in effect The Cut consists of two stories stuck together. It’s more of a mini-series than a film. The downside of this structure is that the plot doesn’t seem to get underway for an hour-and-a-quarter, and yet when it does, the film’s most powerful and horrific sequences have been and gone. The actual quest for the girls feels drawn-out and anticlimactic in comparison. Things aren’t exactly easy for the dogged Nazaret as he follows their trail from Libya to Cuba and the US, but they are nowhere near as harrowing as they were when he was struggling for survival in the desert. At times, in fact, the film’s episodic second half verges on the comic. Whenever Nazaret thinks he has reached the end of his journey, somebody says, “You’re right, your daughters were here... but they’ve just left.” After a while, it’s hard to resist a chuckle.
Structure aside, why isn’t The Cut as intensely moving as it should be? Partly it’s because it fails to explore the political, ethnic and religious depths of the Armenian genocide, but mainly it’s because the characters are so sketchy. Nazaret’s daughters are simply objects at the end of a treasure hunt, and the people he meets on that hunt aren’t much more distinctive. Even Nazaret is a non-character, whose morality and resolve are never in doubt. Despite everything he goes through, he is the same broadly decent man at the conclusion of his mission as he was at the beginning.
One factor in all this is that Rahim, who has to carry the film, looks too young to be the father of teenage daughters, and too healthy to have gone through all of his wartime privations: he doesn’t seem to have aged since he played a tough, inexperienced youth in A Prophet five years ago. Another factor could be Nazaret’s muteness, which prevents him from articulating his feelings. But in one scene he watches a silent film, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, and that’s a reminder that a leading man doesn’t necessarily have to talk for us care about him. The problem with The Cut isn’t that its hero says so little. The problem is that its writer-director has so little to say.