Considering the controversy that surrounds the Armenian Genocide of 1915, it is perhaps inevitable that a film dealing with this topic would end up being rather complex. However, Atom Egoyan’s “Ararat” goes beyond complexity and sinks into utter confusion.
The film takes place in present-day Canada, where an Armenian director decides to make a film about the Genocide. He decides to play with history a bit by including the famed artist Arshile Gorky as one of the main characters (Gorky was in Turkey during the Genocide but his involvement in the context of the film is fictional). He calls in a consultant, Ani, who is an expert on Gorky. She not only joins the project, but also recruits her son Raffi as a driver for the film.
Most of the film centers on Raffi, an 18-year-old Armenian-Canadian (played by newcomer David Alpay). Raffi has a myriad of issues to deal with: he’s sleeping with his step-sister (who is busy trying to torture his mother), he is trying to figure out why his dad died 15 years earlier trying to assassinate a Turkish diplomat, and mostly, he is trying to understand the Genocide and his people’s past.
The main problem with “Ararat” is that Egoyan (best known for “The Sweet Hereafter”) attempts to follow all of these characters in depth. The plotlines become confused and the relationships between the characters often remain unclear. Involved in these tangents are a customs officer named David (Christopher Plummer), his gay son Philip (Brent Carver), and his son’s lover Ali (Elias Koteas). These characters interact with Raffi in plotlines that ultimately seem irrelevant. Ali is cast as the evil Turkish general in the film-within-the-film. In a somewhat forced and scripted conversation with Raffi, Ali tries to deny the Genocide.
David, in another ridiculous plotline, questions Raffi for hours at airport customs when Raffi tries to bring in reels of film. This entire section is a feeble device to allow Raffi to narrate long portions of the film and for him to give monologues about his search for the truth. David supposedly thinks the film canisters hold drugs in them, and though there are simple ways to find out, he chooses instead to gather a life history from Raffi.
Also, the relationship between David and his son seems out of place. Connections could of course be made between David’s inability to accept his son’s homosexuality with broader themes of denial and intolerance, yet these connections aren’t made. Instead it seems a story that has come out of another film, with no relationship to Raffi’s quest for the truth.
Another storyline that Egoyan has a hard time fully integrating is the actual making of the film-within-the-film. Had Egoyan simply made a film set in 1915 and dealt with the Genocide directly, there would have been a fear that it would come across as a clichZ
Because of the several plotlines, the characters seem superficial, and the actors are unable to add any depth. Newcomer Alpay delivers a somewhat flat performance, his voice basically monotone during his long expositions on the search for truth and self. Every so often he stares off into space looking pained, but this is not nearly enough to add any depth to his character. Plummer has his moments as the customs officer, but his character (as well as most of the other characters) is underdeveloped, which is inevitable when trying to follow so many of them. The one notable performance is that of Marie-JosZ
Egoyan deserves credit for bringing to the screen a film about the Genocide, a topic that has largely been ignored for many years because some (including the Turkish government) still deny it ever happened. However, considering this is such a highly-charged topic, and one that Egoyan has made clear is near to his heart, it is surprising to find so little emotion and depth. Expositions on the nature of hate, truth, and love are not enough to make the horror, pain, and confusion of the Genocide come across. This lack of emotion, along with the numerous characters that never quite intersect in the neat way Egoyan intended, create an overly-complex and unsatisfying film.