Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner
Christian Movie Review
“The Water Diviner” tells the post-WWI story of an Australian farmer who travels to Turkey to search for the bodies of his three sons who died in combat during the famous battle of Gallipoli in Turkey. He wants his sons buried on the family’s land instead of remaining “lost and nameless” on the battlefield.
All I wanted was to see a good Russell Crowe movie (I’m a big Crowe fan), witness his directorial debut, escape into far-off locations like Australia and Istanbul, and get lost in the atmosphere of a period piece.
Well, for the most part, all of that happened with “The Water Diviner,” a heart-breaking drama that bookends its story of excruciating grief with warmth and love. Its final cue card offers a heartfelt tribute to all the soldiers from both sides who died during WWI — especially those who remain “lost and nameless” because their bodies were never found.
But all of that touching sincerity was overshadowed by a controversy surrounding the film. There are headlines all over the world about it. The film has a shocking omission in the screenplay of an extremely significant, tragic-beyond-words historical event that took place during the same time period and location of the film’s plot. I’ll explain that controversy, but first we’ll cover a few other things about the movie.
Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance…
The R-rated film has the following content:
Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality/Romance: No sex scenes. A prostitute is seen taking a man into her hotel room. The bare backside of a man is seen while he’s bathing in the ocean.
Violence/Gore: Some graphic war violence, which is why the film is rated R. A man’s face is half-blown off, and we see it in detail. A man’s leg are blown off, and we see his wounds in detail. A man hits a woman in the face after an argument.
Language: No f-words, but a scattering of other swear words.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: Soldiers smoke cigars and cigarettes. Characters drink alcohol in social settings mostly.
Frightening/Emotionally Intense Content: A prolonged scene where three soldiers lie on the battlefield is heart-wrenching. One of them lies moaning in horrible pain as it takes hours for him to bleed out. Another scene in the film depicts a character committing suicide (or we see the aftermath, rather), which is very heart-wrenching. The film examines the weight of grief and pulls you into the emotions of loss in very big ways.
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Entertainment Value and Film Craft
“The Water Diviner” is a study of contrast and painful irony. Joshua Connor is a water diviner who has an uncanny ability to locate water. But when his life takes a dark turn, he is no longer looking for life — the bubbling flow of subterranean water springing up and finding daylight — he is looking for death. The man who has searched for life-giving water now searches for his sons who fell on the battlefield, wandering bleak landscapes marred with craters and barbed wire.
Russell Crowe is a talented director, and I’m looking forward to more films from him. He has a careful, earnest approach — like a mindful gardener — to his scenes, and it pulls you into the emotions of the story. His performance as Joshua Connor, the Australian farmer, is superb, as you would expect from one of the best actors of modern cinema.
I won’t give away the ending, but my favorite moments of the film are its bookends. The opening scene with Joshua Connor on his farm in Australia searching for water and digging a well is beautifully shot and immediately immersive. It brings you into his world right away. The final scene — though I can’t say what it is — brings a similar kind of refreshing, joyous immersion that somehow counterbalances all of the bleak sorrow and grief that fills Joshua’s life journey.
The film offers some stunning location visuals. For example, it is the first feature film — ever — to be allowed to film inside the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
Worldviews and Religious Themes
The majority of our readers are Christian, and, like myself, often wonder how a film approaches faith, how it depicts Christians, and what worldview lies seen or unseen in the foundation of the story.
Disappointingly, the film’s only Christian character is a cruel priest who treats Joshua Connor — in Joshua’s darkest moment of grief — with a horrifying, Pharisaical moral legalism. The wretched, heartless priest who refuses to help with a burial of one of Joshua’s family members even tries to procure a “donation” from Joshua. It’s disgusting.
However, and this might surprise people who have never read the Bible, but the Bible actually depicts and condemns religious people who are like this priest in the film; in fact, Jesus spent much of His time condemning Pharisees who did the exact things that the priest did in the film. Jesus called them “a brood of vipers.”
So, instead of receiving compassion and the love of Christ at the lowest point in his life, Joshua is bitten by one of those vipers that Jesus condemned. I wanted to jump through the screen into the film and say, “No, Joshua, the way that priest is treating you is wrong! That is not how a true follower of Christ would treat you in that moment!”
When the priest verbally attacks Joshua, Joshua’s religious beliefs are summed up neatly in his response to the priest: “Well, you and God can feed me to the pigs for all I care.”
In Turkey, when Joshua arrives in Istanbul, a Muslim asks him a religious-related question, assuming perhaps that Joshua has come to Turkey to explore Islam, and Joshua is quick to reply: “Oh, I’m not here for that. I’m here to find my sons.”
That spirit summarizes Joshua’s worldview. He’s not troubling himself or others looking for a spiritual meaning behind anything — not even behind all the tragedy in his life. He’s not trying to disrespect anybody who is religious either. He’s just going about his business, working through a very heavy grief, and, with pragmatic determination, trying to accomplish his mission of finding his sons and bringing them home to a proper burial on the family’s land.
I should note: there is contrast in the film between Joshua’s encounter with Christianity and his encounter with Islam. After his encounter with the cruel priest and the priest’s drab church building, Joshua goes to Istanbul and encounters the stunningly beautiful and famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul. And the only characters who end up helping him are Muslim. So, if you were trying to look for any bias (though I’m not sure any of it was intentional), the film paints Islam in a somewhat flattering light while Christianity is represented by one really terrible priest.
Other religious elements: the Islamic call to prayer startles Joshua awake in one scene, and its sound has a prominent place in several scenes. In another scene, a character has joined a Sufi monastery in which he is seen spinning with the whirling dervishes.
Controversy over the Film’s Shocking Omission of the Armenian Genocide
My Theory: I Suspect that the Turkish Government Refused to Give the Filmmakers Access to Filming in Turkey if They Didn’t “Cooperate” with How Turkey Was Portrayed.
The controversy surrounding the film is simple: the film shockingly omitted any mention of the first real Holocaust of the 20th Century, the Armenian Genocide, in which the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) systematically murdered 1.5 million Armenian Christians living in Turkey — an event, by the way, that Hitler used as a helpful template for what he planned to do with the Jews. (The picture to the right shows human bones from the genocide.)
It’s not mentioned once, even though the events of the film happen around the same time period and location. Why would Hollywood do that?
Well, it’s not hard to see why: the modern nation of Turkey, to this very day, refuses to acknowledge that what happened to the Armenians was a genocide. In fact, the Turkish government verbally attacked any nation who used the word “genocide” this past weekend during the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Russia, France, and Germany all called it a genocide, and Turkey condemned each one of them for doing so. Obama didn’t call it a genocide. But Turkey “criticized” Obama for sort of hinting at the g-word by calling it a “mass atrocity.”
So Turkey still refuses to fess up to the true nature of the Armenian Genocide, and Turkey’s government is still quite touchy about the way the country’s history is portrayed.
Most of the film was shot in Turkey. The Turkish government even allowed the filmmakers unprecedented access to the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul — something that has never happened in Hollywood history for a feature film. I suspect that Turkey refused to allow the filmmakers to film anything in Turkey unless Hollywood agreed to their terms about how the country’s history would be portrayed; which, of course, would mean that anything hinting at Turkey committing genocide would not be allowed in the film.
This is all pure speculation, of course, but it makes sense. Some might ask: would Turkey really be that much of a control freak over a film that they fear might criticize them?
Well, considering that people in Turkey get arrested and imprisoned for up to four years for merely insulting the President of Turkey (pictured left) on Facebook; yes, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the government in Turkey is what you might call a “control freak” that does not tolerate even a sliver of criticism (or freedom of speech, for that matter). For example, this Turkish teenager insulted President Erdogan at his high school, and he was promptly arrested.
So, considering that the film thanks Turkey in the credits and that Turkey granted them unprecedented access, it’s not shocking that the screenplay perfectly aligns with Turkish preferences regarding the country’s depiction.
Besides the genocide issue, the film’s screenplay seems suspiciously pro-Turkey. It depicts the Ottoman Empire as an innocent victim. In one scene, a Turkish officer tells Joshua — when speaking about the death of Joshua’s sons — something along the lines of, “After all, it was you who invaded us.” In other words, it was the fault of the Allies, not the Ottoman Empire, that his sons died because the Allies should have never invaded Turkey. “Well,” I wanted to say, “The Ottomans allied with Germany in WWI; the Ottoman Empire was at war with the Allies! Of course the Allies would invade!”
Also, in another scene, the Greek army invades Turkey, and when the Greek soldiers arrive, they’re depicted as savage, bloodthirsty, dirty, and pirate-like — a very non-sympathetic portrayal; whereas the Turkish soldiers who befriend Joshua are depicted as compassionate, wise, and charitable — very sympathetic. Somehow the screenplay also failed to mention that Turkey massacred much of the Greek and Assyrian minorities in Turkey during the Armenian Genocide. It wasn’t just the Armenians who died. Greece had a reason to be angry.
To add insult to injury, the film was released on Friday, April 24, 2015, the 100-year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
Not a good PR day for Hollywood. They made what might be the biggest PR blunder in Hollywood history. However, many publications, including big ones like Salon Magazine, while angrily condemning the film because of its omission of the genocide, also doubt that Crowe did any of this intentionally. It’s not like Crowe has it out for the Armenians. Most of the press assumes it was just ignorance. Personally, I think the Turkish government strong-armed the producers of the film, using Turkey’s prized filming locations as leverage, to shape the screenplay how they saw fit.
This is all just a conspiracy theory, of course. Who knows what really happened. Maybe it really was just a massive PR blunder. Either way it was quite a shock.
Frankly, I wish Crowe’s directorial debut had been about a different time period or historical event that wasn’t such a hotbed of current political controversy. The film’s astonishing omission was a disappointing discovery in what was otherwise a well-made, atmospheric, emotionally powerful film with some amazing photography and the always excellent acting of Russell Crowe.
Crowe should’ve just done another Bible movie.
Those are always safe and never controversial, right? (Yes, I can hear you laughing.)
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*Photo of President of Turkey (Erdogan) from Wikicommons, posted by the Secretary of Defense