Armenian-American Elena has recently lost her daughter Sevan, putting the mother in the heartwrenching position of burying her offspring, with whom she had a distant relationship.
In the throes of her grief, disbelief and anger, she returns from the funeral but refuses to follow the Armenian tradition of washing hands before entering the home, which is said to keep the dead from coming back.
Elena’s small rebellion — and her own unbalanced emotional state — causes tension and disapproval at the funeral even as she seeks to understand Sevan more. The moments of conflict expose the fault lines in the family, whether it’s between traditionalists who hold onto their culture with an iron grip or the younger generations that are struggling to stay in touch with the old traditions.
But her defiance also makes way for a small moment of grace, giving her comfort and acceptance during her near unbearable loss.
Writer-director Robert Nazar Arjoyan’s family drama explores not just the difficult trajectory of grief and the strange moments of hope to be found within such a devastating arc, but also the line between traditions and superstitions.
The storytelling takes us intimately into Armenian culture, a milieu not often portrayed on film. Essentially one long pivotal scene in Elena’s life, the rich writing, camerawork and musical score gently weaves its way between the different family members, who each seem to encapsulate a different relationship with cultural heritage. Some grasp onto traditions with an iron grip, but others have a lighter, looser interpretation.
This panorama approach is emphasized by the film’s visual style, which often emphasizes wider group shots over more intimate face-ups. While lead actress Anne Bedian’s excellent performance as Elena forms the emotional arc that we hang the story upon, what’s also important is the context that the story exists in.
The wider view allows the film to look at how tightly Armenian traditionalists hold onto their culture, understandable given their tumultuous, troubled history in the world. But after fighting so hard to keep their heritage alive, it asks why it is so difficult to question traditions as the world evolves, and what role questioners and rebels have within this.
The writing, too, allows its revelations and development unravel gradually, letting background information and relationships unfold through its kaleidoscope of interactions and conversations. Gradually, the audience comes to understand the depth of Elena’s loss, and just how much Sevan will be missed by her partner, family and community — a depth revealed in the film’s last encounter, which finally gives Elena the comfort and acceptance she needs.
“I Promised Her Life” tells the story of a grieving mother, the dead daughter she hardly knew and just how far a parent will go to make things right. But by overlaying an intimate cultural aspect over the universal emotions of love and grief, it gives viewers a chance to examine their own inheritances of how they acknowledge death and grief — as well as finding our balance in letting tradition versus our own actions define us.