Writer-director Atom Egoyan's heartfelt passion project "Ararat" is an abstractly structured account of both the 1915-1923 Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks and the massacre's emotional reverberation in the descendants of its survivors.
It's an immense, dark chapter in world history, the gravity of which has never been given its due, especially in the West. As a character in the film points out, even Aldoph Hitler said, "Who remembers the extermination of the Armenians?" when lobbying reluctant underlings to continue with the Holocaust. And Turkey still denies the slaughter took place, despite evidence and eyewitness accounts to the contrary.
Such accounts and denials are an integral part of the truth and shadow at play in this movie, which weaves five stories from three time periods into an intricate elliptical narrative that is sometimes powerfully distressing, sometimes overly contrived and sometimes downright confounding.
Three closely connected modern storylines provide the structure for two more in the past. One follows a somber, 40-something Armenian-Canadian art historian (Arsinée Khanjian, Egoyan's wife) whose new book about expressionist Arshile Gorky -- a survivor of the massacre -- becomes the gateway to scenes from Gorky's adult life, as he finishes a famous painting of himself and his mother in 1934.
Another present day plot concerns the making of a movie about the massacre by a very dedicated director (Charles Aznavour) and screenwriter (Eric Bogosian), who hire Khanjian as a consultant when they decide to fold the story of Gorky's war-torn childhood into their plot. The making of this movie-within-a-movie is also used to tell part of the historical story.
But the bulk of the horrors from 1915 are recounted through an impassioned account given by the art historian's credulous, college-age son (David Alpay) to a dubious customs inspector (Christopher Plummer) as he tries to explain why he's returning from Turkey with several film reel canisters -- which he says he cannot allow opened because they contain undeveloped footage for the movie. Alpay is under extra scrutiny because his girlfriend is in jail on a drug charge and his father was a terrorist (some say freedom fighter) who died trying to assassinate a Turkish ambassador.
This interrogation, however, makes a improbable jumping-off point for long passages set during the Armenian holocaust, while the work on the set of Aznavour's movie -- Egoyan's other portal to the past -- seems like a cheesy endeavor with histrionic actors (two of which are played with great bombast by Bruce Greenwood and Elias Koteas) and tacky sets.
These eccentric touches of reciprocal storytelling (a hallmark of Egoyan's films "Felicia's Journey," "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Exotica") are meant to work as a catalyst for emotional and intellectual discussions in the picture's present. But for the audience they may beget only confusion that distracts from the gravity of the otherwise powerfully moving historical plot. The uncomfortable comic relief that comes from scenes on the movie set feels superfluous and esoteric enough to wonder if the subtle laughs are unintentional. Another sticking point: Why would the customs agent sit still for Alpay's drawn-out detailing of Armenian history?
There's far more intricacy to the connections in "Ararat" than I have stamina to describe here -- for instance Alpay's girlfriend (Marie-Josée Croze) is also his step-sister, who blames his mother (the art historian) for her own father's death and frequently harasses her at public appearances. But while such complicated connections give the film an interesting synchronicity, they don't serve its substance. The impact of the Armenian genocide is diluted by too much stage business in the modern day.
Run time: 115 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 4th September 2002
Box Office USA: $1.4M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 55%
Fresh: 42 Rotten: 34
IMDB: 6.6 / 10
Director: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Simon Abkarian as Arshile Gorky, Charles Aznavour as Edward, Christopher Plummer as David, Arsinée Khanjian as Ani, David Alpay as Raffi, Marie-Josée Croze as Celia, Elias Koteas as Ali / Jevdet Bay, Brent Carver as Philip
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