Amerikatsi is a story of a familiar time and place—a country struggling to rebuild after a genocide. But wait, there’s more, because the place is Armenia, and the genocide that our unlikely hero Charlie (Michael A. Goorjian) escaped at age four occurred in Armenia in 1915.
30 years later, 1948 Armenia is firmly sealed away behind Stalin’s Iron Curtain, but is allowing survivors to return and rebuild. One of them is Charlie, fully grown, freshly repatriated, and looking to start over. He views himself as Armenian and the now Communist country he’s eager to help rebuild as his home, unaware, in the way many Americans are, how his every word, gesture, and most notably, his open, friendly manner marks him instantly as American.
It can only lead to trouble given how sincerely Charlie embodies the best of its values. He is honest, innocent, humorous, artistic, kind, and given to instinctively crossing himself as an almost unconscious reflection of his religious faith, no small dangers in a humourless Communist environment. His doom is nearly sealed thanks to a good deed, when a child he rescues turns out to be the son of a Russian Commander, Dmitry (Mikhail Trukhin), and he’s invited to dine with the family.
Dmitry is quick to see how much Charlie appeals to his similarly kind-hearted wife Sona (Nelli Uvarova), and quickly orders him arrested on the pretense of wearing a tie. Charlie isn’t savvy enough to recognize what he’s in for when men come for him in the night, but he catches on quick enough when he’s accused of spying and a darkly comic twist of fate results in his imprisonment.
Despair seems imminent until Charlie discovers that his window provides him a view into an apartment that happens to belong to one of the guards, Tigran (Hovik Keuchkerian), who happens to be the brother-in-law of the man responsible for his circumstances. A former artist, he’s now literally held above prisoners and guards in a tower at a safe remove.
“Amerikatsi‘s commitment to the magic of human connection isn’t without drawbacks, such as making Charlie an almost cardboard portrait of a saint with the burden of representing so much more than himself.”
He also unknowingly sustains Charlie’s spirit and provides him a view into a culture he never knew, allowing Charlie to live vicariously through him. It’s also an unwitting commentary as to why America has lasted, which goes far deeper than imperialism and great marketing. The guards can only laugh at Charlie’s earnestness for so long, and many of them are won over by his commitment to uplifting himself and giving generously to those around him, including whetting their appetite for American culture.
But Amerikatsi is always aware of what Charlie is up against, and totalitarianism tends to exact a price for genuine human connection which has nothing to do with furthering the agenda of the state. Those who have developed a fondness for him do their best for Charlie, but Amerikatsi is too aware of what they’re up against to be a simplistically uplifting tale of goodness triumphing above all else.
What does triumphantly emerge is a portrait of souls locked away behind an Iron Curtain, some of which manage to flourish and even display kindness despite a viciously repressive system. And if sincerity and absurdity got Charlie into this, both, along with a tiny gesture that amounts to a kind of divine intervention, can get him out.
Amerikatsi‘s commitment to the magic of human connection isn’t without drawbacks, such as making Charlie an almost cardboard portrait of a saint with the burden of representing so much more than himself. But Goorjian absolutely sells with his air of increasingly weary hopefulness, and eyes that are at their most expressive as he manages to connect to both homeland and culture through Tigran’s routines.
Goorjian dedicates Amerikatsi to his grandfather, also a survivor of the Armenian genocide, and the history and culture on display is so fascinating that it begs for anything that goes into the more personal specifics of the story, even if it’s merely another title card. But what Amerikatsi does focus on begs to be heard, especially as, according to the movie’s website, conflict erupted yet again and much of the cast and crew headed the front lines months after filming wrapped.