“Ararat” is a complex, ambitious film which aims not only to portray the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in Turkey in 1915–a hotly-debated, frequently denied event that Hitler allegedly alluded to in urging the Final Solution upon his comrades–but also to examine the psychological impact the disaster has had on the Armenian psyche. It’s obviously a project close to the heart of writer-director Atom Egoyan, himself of Armenian descent, and he has fashioned it into a dense, dreamlike rumination on history, memory, myth and the relationship between reality and artistic representation.
Egoyan is a thoughtful, challenging filmmaker–his 1997 adaptation of Russell Banks’ “The Sweet Hereafter” is one of the finest pictures of the last decade, and “Exotica” (1994) and “Felicia’s Journey” (1999), though not its equal, are also exceptional pieces–and one has to admire the breadth, intricacy and haunting quality he brings to “Ararat.” It would certainly have been easier to construct a straightforwardly chronological drama set against the events of 1915, something with overtones of both “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Schindler’s List.” But Egoyan isn’t interested simply in conveying historical information, or in issuing a cinematic condemnation of what he plainly sees as an act of genocide. His aim is far more complicated: he wants to suggest the layers of meaning and distance that separate the actual event from the echoes that resonate in the hearts and minds of contemporary Armenians, wherever they might live. He has fashioned his script, therefore, as the story of a film being made about the slaughter, and further as a depiction of some of the damaged figures involved in making it–most notably an art historian whose study of a painter who survived the episode leads to her participation in the project; her troubled stepdaughter, who blames the woman for the death (possibly by suicide) of her father; and her son, who’s in love with his stepsister and estranged from his mother as a result. A goodly portion of the narrative, moreover, is told through a conversation between the son, who’s gone to the site of the massacre to film the remnants of the devastation, and a customs official who suspects that the film canisters might actually contain contraband. All of this (including a backstory concerning the customs officer, who can’t accept the homosexual lifestyle of his own son, the partner of an actor in the film) is presented in a fractured, non-serial form that mixes past with present, artistic recreation with memories and simple imaginings, and elaborate action sequences with extended monologues. Many viewers will probably find the result confusing and obscure, and it’s undeniable that there’s an artificial feel to the film, with its deliberate pace, intentionally hesitant and stilted manner, and disdain for chronology; certainly it demands one’s full attention, something that today’s audiences–accustomed to movies so uncomplicated that one can easily get everything they have to offer with one eye closed–are reluctant to give. The style of “Ararat,” however, isn’t just an affectation; it’s central to Egoyan’s vision. The picture isn’t merely about the historical occurrence but also about the difficulty of comprehending it artistically and dealing with it emotionally; the moody, elegiac, disjointed effect is meant to distance us from it and, in a sense, put us in the same uncertain emotional and intellectual state as the characters. (We’re never allowed to forget, for example, that the 1915 sequences are cinematic recreations–they’re kept slightly synthetic and melodramatic to suggest physically imperfect and emotionally heightened representations, just like a painting of the artist whom the historian is studying, which is constantly compared to a photograph on which it’s based.) Though the approach isn’t entirely successful–the final suggestion that the very process of learning about the Armenian tragedy can lead to some sort of personal conversion is rather pat, and there are times when the rhythm seems dilatory and the enigmatic atmosphere more than a trifle strained–you have to admire the audacity and elegance of Egoyan’s design, and his refusal to play on the heartstrings.
The actors are obviously devoted to fulfilling the director’s vision, but in doing so some seem too self-effacing and others not quite settled into their roles. As the customs official, for example, Christopher Plummer is stiffer than usual, and Arsinee Khanjian (Egoyan’s wife) doesn’t escape a hint of amateurishness as the historian. Marie-Josee Croze is exaggerated as her stepdaughter, but by contrast as her son David Alpay shows affecting restraint and sincerity. Among those involved in the film-within-a-film, Charles Aznavour radiates calm authority as the director, and as its stars Elias Koteas and Egoyan stalwart Bruce Greenwood work diligently; but the filmmaker’s epigrammatic style leaves them all seeming rather mannered.
Ultimately “Ararat” proves too cerebral an exercise to carry the emotional wallop Egoyan is striving after—”The Sweet Hereafter,” while dealing with equally universal themes, was simpler and more direct, and infinitely more powerful. Despite its flaws, however, one can’t help but admire the film’s reach, even when the goal exceeds Egoyan’s grasp.