2 January 2022

Henri Verneuil's Mayrig (1991)

Robert Guédigian's grandfather in Germany was immensely proud to learn that his grandson hadn't, unlike like the earlier Charles Aznavour and Henri Verneuil (both of Armenian descent), Gallicised his Armenian name. But this is a huge celebration not only of Henri Verneuil's ancestry, but of the dedication of his parents and close relatives and their friends to his success as a result of their efforts. By extension, it's an enormous love letter to surviving Armenian culture.

The film has as an introduction the trial of Soghomon Tehlirian for the murder in Berlin in 1921 of Talaat Pacha, one of the principle leaders of the Armenian genocide by the Turks, which as I write this is still only officially recognised by thirty-one countries. Although clearly guilty, Tehlirian was unanimously cleared of assassination, which many Armenians learned on having fled Turkey. Among those (in this first film version of Verneuil's life) are the parents of 'Azad', Hagop Zakarian (Omar Sharif) and Araxi (Claudia Cardinale), who arrive in Marseille with very little French: 'Mayrig' means 'mother' in Armenian.

Here we have the flight from Turkey of a group of Armenians, their initial life as outcasts in Marseille. Azad has to tolerate living in slums, racism in school, and finally being accepted into French society. It's a long haul, but this is a brilliant, unforgettable film which obviously serves as Verneuil's penultimate farewell.

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