Amerikatsi (Photos: People of Ar)

By Matt Brunson

★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Michael Goorjian
STARS Michael Goorjian, Hovik Keuchkerian

Life is beautiful in Amerikatsi, a stirring movie about one man attempting to hold onto his hope, his happiness, and his humanity during a period of geopolitical upheaval.

Like Roberto Benigni’s 1998 La vita è bella, this feature from writer-director-star Michael Goorjian (an Emmy Award winner for his portrayal of an autistic man in the 1994 TV movie David’s Mother) employs generous dollops of humor in relating what under most circumstances would be tackled with stone-faced seriousness. The protagonist is Charlie, who as a child escaped the Armenian genocide during World War I by being sent to the United States while the rest of his family was slaughtered. In 1947, Charlie (now played as an adult by Goorjian) returns to his homeland, lured by Josef Stalin’s repatriation program that would reward those who come back to help rebuild the country.

Of course, as these returning Armenians discover, the reality is far different, with many accused of crimes and sent to Siberian labor camps. In the case of Charlie, he’s arrested for spreading Western propaganda by daring to wear a polka-dotted tie in public, clearly a sign that he’s trying to undermine noble Communist principles with his cosmopolitan decadence. Placed in an Armenian prison, he’s earmarked for Siberian deportation until an earthquake rocks the joint and damages much of the structure. Since laborers are needed to repair the jail, Charlie and his fellow prisoners are kept around rather than shipped off.

It’s while Charlie is in his cell post-tremor that he notices a huge section of the prison wall has crumbled, thus allowing him to see directly into the neighboring apartment of the burly guard Tigron (Hovik Keuchkerian) and his wife Ruzan (Narine Gioryan). Like James Stewart, Charlie is offered a rear window through which to peer into the lives of these strangers, and who can blame him? Breaking up the monotony of his existence, he incessantly watches the couple as they talk, dance, eat, argue, and entertain (but not boff, as their bedroom is not located on the visible side). Charlie treats the window as we would  a television set, and their lives become his own personal soap opera. And even though he can’t hear (or understand) what they’re saying, their actions, even at a distance, reveal much.

Michael Goorjian in Amerikatsi

It takes a while for Amerikatsi to find its groove, as the early going, when Charlie is still a free man, is awfully broad in its attempts to locate the humor in these unique situations. But the movie settles down once it reaches the prison, with the humor more gently woven into the fabric of the story. I liked, for example, the older prisoner who’s forever rattling off to Charlie all of the monumental achievements of Armenians throughout history (he reminded me of Christopher Guest’s Harlan Pepper dutifully going through all the different types of nuts in 2000’s Best in Show), or the hypocritical Russian officer who hides American glamour magazines inside his Soviet paperwork, all the better to check out photos of Ava Gardner in her “filthy bikini.”

Goorjian is excellent in the central role, delivering a winning performance as an upstanding individual who somehow manages to hold onto his cheery disposition in even the most punishing of circumstances. There’s an unsettling scene late in the movie in which Charlie anticipates a beating, and Goorjian plays it beautifully — it only takes his facial expressions, at once forlorn and forgiving, to convey that he absolutely does not want the thrashing and yet he understands its necessity.

Although they make thematic sense, the final scenes are perhaps a bit too tidy in the manner in which they wrap everything up. Then again, they play directly into the sense of national pride championed by the Armenian-American Goorjian. Contrary to the age-old maxim, you can go home again, even if the welcome mat is more frayed than expected.

(Amerikatsi is currently playing the film festival circuit and will tentatively open wider in 2022-2023.)

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