The Earthquake (Zemletryasenie)

Armenia (2016) Dir. Sarik Andreasyan

It is said that disaster often brings people together as they unite in the clean up and rescue operations following a major catastrophe. Using the 1988 earthquake in Armenia which destroyed 58 towns and over 300 settlements as a backdrop, Sarik Andreasyan’s drama explores this particular theme, linking two men unaware of the tragic connection they already share.

On December 7th 1988, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake rocks the Northern Armenian town of Spitak, claiming thousands of victims in its wake. Among the survivors helping out with the rescue campaign is Robert (Viktor Stepanyan), orphaned in a car crash when he was young and raised by his uncle, alongside his cousin Senik (Sos Janibekyan).

Robert discovers Lilit (Tatev Ovakimyan) trapped under the rubble and tries to recruit help but a crane is needed to free Lilit successfully. In the meantime, former police Lieutenant Konstantin Berezhnoy (Konstantin Lavronenko), recently returned to Spitak after eight years in prison, takes charge, unbeknownst to him that the victim of his crime is much closer than he could imagine.

This Armenian/Russian co-production has clear ambitions of being an epic mainstream drama, given that it was submitted for the 2017 Oscars only to be disqualified for having too many Russian staff on it to be considered Armenian. Having made his name in his native Armenia with low budget comedies, director Sarik Andreasyan took a rather large leap to bigger things with his first English language thriller American Heist, before returning to his homeland for this emotive drama.

Andreasyan isn’t looking to make any kind of political statement with The Earthquake, quite the opposite in fact, going to great lengths to point out how quick other nations were in sending assistance with the rescues, medical aid, and care packages. What isn’t noted that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev personally asked the US or help, despite the Cold War still ongoing between the two countries. Wouldn’t happen today with Putin…  

What does happen in this is that the first twenty minutes are concerned with introducing the primary family units that are about to torn apart by the impending natural disaster. However, with time being a limited factor, the expedient manner in which this occurs is insufficient in establishing who is who; much the same applies to the heavy handed exposition designed to sow the seeds of sympathy.

For instance, there the unexplained discomfort of Lilit’s around cemetery worker Armen (Armen Markaryan) who gifts her and her brother Supen (Mikael Aramyan) a marble table top. However some situations are self-explanatory, like angry patriarch Erem (Michael Poghosian) refusing to see his pregnant daughter Gayanz (Sabina Akhmedova) because the child was conceived out of wedlock.

Pulling on our heartstrings is young Vanya (Daniil Izotov), caught in the aftershock with his mother Anna (Mariya Mironova), who is severely wounded and left to run home – or what is left of their home. But there is more to them than being random victims to play on our sympathy which is revealed later on in an admittedly poignant moment laced with irony given the circumstances.

To be fair, the script – attributed to five people – does find away to connect some of the disparate threads, intertwining one or more of them to a shared but rather contrived conclusion, in one instance by way bringing a particular plot point to resolution. But as explained earlier, not all the characters involved are established well enough or appear with any adequate frequency to make them memorable.

Yet, the earthquake itself and the devastation it causes is enough to create a situation in which we are invested in the plight of the able survivors in their ill-equipped struggle to pick themselves up and band together to save others. The fact this is set in 1988 and Spitak isn’t a thriving, hi-tech metropolis means the absence of mobile phones for communication purposes and sturdy rescue vehicles with greater capacity for strength and adaptation to rough terrains brings the mission down to simple, honest iron will.

Robert is the nominal protagonist but is very bland and his backstory, the 1980 car accident that opens the film, is almost forgotten, by the time it resurfaces, the audience already knows what the twist is. This result in the tension which should have been born from this situation not happening and the focus remains instead on the rescue campaign. One could argue this would detract from the importance of this mission but since it is set up at the start, it really needed to be addressed as a key sub plot.

We are left to assume that the factual elements of this story lay squarely in the dates, locations, and occurrence of the earthquake, along with the bare bones framework for the efforts of the civilian rescue teams. It is not always easy to dramatise an incident like this without getting carried away with the creative aspect of holding the audience’s attention, so we have to give the writers the benefit of the doubt where the inspiration for the peripheral material is concerned.

Andreasyan has shown he can work with big budgets and leave it all on the screen, as the sets of the rubble-filled landscapes are remarkable. No doubt, some of the panoramic background shots are CGI but they blend in seamlessly with the main workspaces, shot outside for authenticity. The actual event only last for a few minutes but save for one shot, isn’t overegged to come across as unnatural or unbelievable, and the earnest cast sell the drama and heartbreak of the aftermath with conviction and aplomb.

On a level of pure dramatic entertainment in depicting the indomitable human spirit in coming together in times of need, The Earthquake succeeds, as well as paying tribute to those involved in the real incident 30 years ago. As a piece of engaging drama, not enough was done to develop a connection between the characters and the audience for that all-important emotional investment.