Just as Steven Spielberg reached a point at which he was prepared to tackle the Holocaust, in which some of his own relatives lost their lives, with "Schindler's List," Canada's boldly idiosyncratic Atom Egoyan became ready to deal in his own way, in his audacious "Ararat," with the less well-remembered genocide of his own ancestral people.
In 1915, the Turks attempted to eradicate Armenians from their Anatolian homelands in East Turkey through massive forced marches to the deserts of what is now Syria, resulting in the deaths of more than two-thirds of the Armenian population -- well more than 1 million fatalities. Death came through starvation, dehydration and disease or by rape, brutality and outright massacre. To this day, the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge that with the advent of World War I a well-orchestrated plan to exterminate the Armenian population of Ottoman Turkey ever took place.
"Ararat" is, first of all, a triumph of strategy. To depict the massacre, Egoyan decided upon the distancing device of a film-within-a-film. That film is directed by a famous Armenian director, Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour), from a script by a screenwriter of Armenian descent (Eric Bogosian) working from "An American Physician in Turkey," a 1917 memoir by missionary Clarence Ussher, a survivor of the Siege of Van. When Saroyan and Bogosian's Rouben attend a lecture given by Toronto art historian Ani (Arsinee Khanjian) on the celebrated Armenian emigre painter Arshile Gorky, they see an opportunity to work the artist into their plot, as Gorky, born Vosdanig Manoog Adoian, was a survivor of the genocide that cost his mother her life. They then persuade the reluctant Ani to serve as a historical consultant.
"Ararat's" key figure is Ani's 18-year-old son, Raffi (newcomer David Alpay), who has been moved to go to Turkey with his video camera to make a film diary of the ruins of his ancestral homeland. Returning home, he is held up at length in customs by an implacable official (Christopher Plummer) on his last day of work before retiring. Egoyan's plot is complicated, thickly populated, with its characters more closely connected to each other than they will ever know. Plummer's David is having difficulty accepting his son's gay relationship. David faces even greater challenges on the home front, torn between his love for his mother and for his half-sister, Celia (Marie-Josee Croze), who is obsessed by her belief that Ani is responsible for her father's death and is determined to force Ani to acknowledge it.
Egoyan interweaves the strands of his plots and themes so tightly that the elusive yet haunting presence of the genocide hovers over everything while he explores the complexities of redemption and forgiveness, the parent-child relationship, the relationship between art and reality, and the moral imperative to remember the past. Egoyan covers all this territory and more with aplomb and clarity. The controlled passion that reverberates throughout the film sustains stretches of crucial yet inevitably didactic commentary in regard to the genocide, as well as the increasingly erratic behavior of Celia, who carries on like a vengeful heroine of Greek tragedy.
The shooting of the film-within-the film, on location and sound stages in Canada, becomes an ironic commentary on the compromises of commercial filmmaking, which Egoyan himself has successfully resisted his entire career. We learn that Saroyan has been considered passe for 20 years, and the sequences we see from his film are well staged but conventional. Yet at some points the line between an event's re-creation for film and the event itself blurs, catching us up in the terrible immediacy of the genocide. At other times, the film-within-the-film seems so lurid and hackneyed that it is impossible to imagine it can be very good. While wanting to honor his Armenian heritage, Rouben comes across as a nervous hack, swift to rationalize "artistic license."
Yet Egoyan's oblique, layered attack ultimately pays off, evoking a strong emotional connection between past and present, the historical and the personal, in a flowing, cinematic manner in collaboration with his frequent cameraman, Paul Sarossy. The film makes use of an intoxicating array of Armenian music.
It's no exaggeration to say that Egoyan challenges his cast, with the regal Khanjian embodying the enduring spirit of Armenia. Other key players include Brent Carver as David's son Philip, Elias Koteas as Philip's actor lover, Bruce Greenwood as the actor cast as Ussher and Simon Abkarian as the tormented Gorky. "Ararat" makes considerable demands of the audience but richly rewards those prepared to go the distance.
MPAA rating: R, for violence, sexuality/nudity and language
Times guidelines: Forthright depictions of massacre, some sex and nudity, blunt language.
Charles Aznavour...Edward Saroyan
A Miramax Films presentation of an Alliance Atlantis and Serendipity Point Films production in association with Ego Film Arts and ARP. Writer-director Atom Egoyan. Producer Robert Lantos. Cinematographer Paul Sarossy. Editor Susan Shipton. Music Mychael Danna. Costumes Beth Pasternak. Production designer Phillip Barker. Art director Kathleen Climie. Set designer Pat Flood. Set decorator Patricia Cuccia. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.
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