“This is the kind of film you can only do once in your life,” declares the director of the film-within-the-film about the Armenian holocaust in Atom Egoyan’s “Ararat,” a statement that surely echoes the importance Egoyan himself attaches his picture about the tragic 20th century history of his cultural ancestors. Very far afield from the sort of chilly, intellectual low-budgeters on which the Canadian helmer made his name, this ambitious, time-jumping mosaic has the odor of a lifetime of research and artistic strategizing jammed into a two-hour feature, what with all its historical speechifying and point-of-view elaborations. Serious, little-dramatized subject and the director’s name will draw automatic attention in fests and in exclusive big city situations, but didactic, earnest approach will spawn reserved critical reaction and indifference from general audiences.
Structured to present the Armenian tragedy from a multi-generational perspective so as to illustrate its traumatic impact across 85 years of history, the film proper takes place in present-day Toronto, where art history professor Ani (Arsinee Khanjian) is dealing with her heritage on a number of fronts, personal and professional. Biggest thorn in her side is her son Raffi (David Alpay), and his romance with her step-daughter Celia (Marie-Josee Croze), who blames Ani for the death of her father, either by having murdered him or having provoked his suicide, according to her theory of the moment.
Ani’s first husband, Raffi’s father, was a “terrorist” or “freedom fighter,” depending upon who’s talking, killed when attempting to assassinate a Turkish diplomat.
The author of a biography of the Armenian painter Arshile Gorky (Simon Abkarian), who’s glimpsed in flashbacks, Ani is paged as a consultant on an epic film (being shot in Toronto, natch) by vet Armenian helmer Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour). Based on an actual 1917 nonfiction book, “An American Physician in Turkey,” by Clarence Ussher, this film-within-a-film focuses on the 1915 Siege of Van, an Armenian community in Eastern Turkey, and the eventual forced march of Armenians that resulted in massive atrocities.
Threaded through all this is another narrative strand, set some months later, of Raffi being interrogated at the Toronto airport by soon-to-retire customs official David (Christopher Plummer). Carrying several cans of exposed 35mm film that he claims are background shots for the epic, Raffi is forced to tell about the places he’s visited by David, who, in what is definitely one plot element too many, is trying to come to terms with the gay lifestyle of his son (Brent Carver), whose partner just happens to be a fellow named Ali (Elias Koteas) who’s cast as the Turkish heavy in Saroyan’s picture. Latter character is included mainly to give voice to Turkish skepticism about the truth of the Ottoman Empire’s genocidal policies, a view significant in light of continued Turkish refusal to apologize for the events of 1915 and its parallel to infinitely more familiar Jewish holocaust denial.
Such a jumble of issues is a lot for any film to carry and, unfortunately, Egoyan conveys nearly all his meanings through dialogue that always baldly addresses the subject at hand. This is a film in which everyone gets to explain his or her views in full, sincerely and without interruption or contradiction. Of course, most of this history needs explanation, given its remoteness for most audiences, but Egoyan has not even attempted to find visually charged images that can carry any metaphorical or thematic weight of their own, or to develop some narrative shorthand. Nor has he felt inclined to leaven the proceedings with the slightest trace of humor, irony or everyday interchange between individuals; never is “Ararat” not directly “about” Armenia and Armenians. Thesping that is uniformly emotionally sincere rather than naturalistic can’t tilt the balance back the other way.
Egoyan’s pedantic, lecturing approach makes the film a bit of a slog, although the basic material has an intrinsic interest that makes one at least want to know more about the historical events. But Saroyan’s “Ararat” has the inauthentic look of some ’50-’60s-style period evocations, with patently artificial looking sets and backdrops. Certainly such a film made today would be produced not in studio but on location, as is the climactic forced march (shot in Alberta).
Elaborate pic has been well mounted in all other respects, with a fine and diverse array of Toronto locations giving the scattered story a solid base. Paul Sarossy’s rich lensing and Phillip Barker’s production design lend further visual body. Mychael Danna’s score becomes too busy at certain times, but does develop a couple of fulsome and appropriately mournful themes.