It wouldn't be unreasonable for you to reflect upon Roberto Benigni's acclaimed turn in 1997's Life is Beautiful while watching Emmy Award-winner Michael A. Goorjian's latest film Amerikatsi, a quiet little indie gem that has already picked up prizes at Woodstock Film Festival (Best Narrative and Best Cinematography) and Hamburg Film Festival (Best Film) and seems likely to pick up even more prizes along its festival journey with its winning ensemble and heartfelt, meaningful story.
We meet Charlie as a young boy having escaped the Armenian genocide during World War I by stowing away in a trunk bound for the United States.
His family wasn't so lucky.
In 1947, Charlie, played by Goorjian, joins thousands of others in repatriating with his homeland courtesy of an "invitation" of sorts from Soviet Premiere Joseph Stalin. He's barely arrived when arrested for the "crime" of wearing a tie by a jealous Soviet commander, Dmitry (Mikhail Trukhin), despite the fact (or because of the fact) that his wife, Sona (Nelli Uvarova) has taken a liking to the charming, somewhat naive Charlie. Isolated in a prison and sent to confinement to prevent him from influencing others with his ways, Charlie very nearly succumbs to the gravity of his situation when one night he realizes he can see inside the nearby home of Tigran (Hovik Keuchkerian) and his wife Ruzan (Narine Grigoryan). Secretly watching the lives of this prison guard and his wife as they love, laugh, fight, gather, and more, Charlie's spirit is renewed and he grows to sympathize with this Soviet Armenian soldier who carries secrets of his own.
Amerikatsi is in some ways a rather unusual film, a film of tremendous spirit and hope even in its darkest moments of despair. The gently paced film runs just under two hours, a pace that allows the characters to breathe and for the audience to embrace the film's quieter moments. While threats are made toward Charlie, only rather briefly do we get a sense of true menace and even then it feels as if somehow Charlie's spirit will transcend it.
Filmed in the Republic of Armenia, Amerikatsi is a fable of hope and simultaneously a love song for this land that remains grounded in reality. Goorjian himself was born and raised here in the United States, though he has Armenian roots and you can feel his deep passion for this film and this land in every frame of the film. Goorjian picked up the Primetime Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in David's Mother and has received much acclaim on both stage and screen. With Amerikatsi, Goorjian takes a fictional story that is still undeniably personal and creates a remarkably engaging and memorable film.
In addition to Goorjian's winning performance here, Amerikatsi is gifted with a tremendous ensemble cast. Hovik Keuchkerian makes us understand Charlie's sympathy for him as Tigran while Mikhail Trukhin admirably handles the difficult task of allowing us to rather hate him for the way he's treated Charlie without diminishing the believability of his relationship with Sona. Speaking of Sona, Nelli Uvarova absolutely soars with limited but memorable screen time.
Lensing by Ghasem Ebrahimian is impeccable and Andranik Berberyan's original score is somehow both melancholy and spirited as it captures the various rhythms of Goorjian's wonderful storytelling.
Amerikatsi lives into its essential value that freedom is a state of mind, a fact driven home in the film's final moments that I'll confess brought me to tears.
Continuing on its festival journey, this beautiful gem of a film is one to see if you get the chance. Weaving together realism, fantasy, history, and nostalgia into truly compelling storytelling about a culture not always understood, Amerikatsi will linger in your heart and mind long after the closing credits have rolled.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic