"Ararat" is a movie that should have shaken us to the core - and sadly doesn't.
This toweringly ambitious picture confronts a brilliant director, Atom Egoyan, with a major historical event and a profound theme. It's about past and present views of the genocide of Armenian civilians in Turkey in 1915, as it really happened and as later generations recall or record it. Yet profound themes and moving histories don't necessarily make for profound and moving films, and in this case, Egoyan's "Ararat" remains tantalizingly unreached. It's a remote and chilly place, often besieged by didacticism, strained through layers of multiple perception and narrative experimentation.
It's a pity, because you'd think this material, for the Armenian-Canadian Egoyan, would have inspired a great film instead of merely a good one. The film is as disappointing as it is finely crafted and sometimes moving. For as much as many later 20th century holocausts, from Nazi Germany's to Cambodia's, the genocide in Turkey (which reportedly resulted in the systematic extermination of two-thirds of Turkey's Armenian population - more than a million people) was an episode of devastating impact, one that opens up wounds almost a century later.
Yet Egoyan's film tends to muffle that impact, miss much of that grief. Strangely, the director, who was able so movingly to convey the aftermath of a local tragedy and family pain in "The Sweet Hereafter," mutes the horror here, even though he tries to convey it in any number of complex and potentially fascinating ways the way the genocide, and especially its denial by the Turkish government, resonates today.
Perhaps it's true that a family's anguish is easier to convey on screen than the tragedy of a whole people.
Or perhaps Egoyan's approach is simply too complex. "Ararat" gives us the bloody reality of the genocide through the memories of later generations and through the story of a contemporary filmed re-creation of the Siege at Vas, as recorded on the spot by historian Clarence Ussher. The film, in which Ussher is portrayed by Canadian actor Martin (Bruce Greenwood), is being shot by a fictitious famed Armenian-descended director, Edward Saroyan (played by French actor and balladeer Charles Aznavour).
Consulting on this imaginary film is Toronto history academic Ani (played by Egoyan's wife and actress Arsinee Khanjian), a woman who has survived political storms and now longs for peace, but whose son Raffi (David Alpay) and daughter-in-law Celia (Marie-Josee Croze) are alienated by the schism between Ani and her ex-husband, a terrorist killed during an assassination attempt. In the third plot strand, one of the film-within-a-film's actors, Turkish-descended Ali (Elias Koteas), who is playing the 1915 Van siege villain Devdet Bey, is confronted by acting quandaries and the disapproval of his lover Philip's (Brent Carver) father, the staid David (Christopher Plummer). In an unlikely round-robin David, a Canadian customs official, winds up interrogating Raffi about mysterious film cans that he says are connected with Saroyan's film.
The actors are all very good, especially Khanjian and Plummer, but the film, surprisingly, lacks the visual poetry and allusiveness we expect from Egoyan. Though usually he's an expert at loading up seemingly simple stories with a fine web of psychological inference and philosophical or social speculation, here he seems to be cramming in too much, too slowly. "Ararat" attacks its subject from such a variety of angles that it sacrifices the direct emotional-dramatic involvement that would seem inevitable. Saroyan's movie, on phony-looking sets that are juxtaposed with views of the past, seem scarcely less artificial than Egoyan's "Ararat" itself, which is as full of declamatory speeches and cross-firing arguments as a cable TV news-talk show, but without the fireworks. Everything is muted, filtered. The characters tend to become mouthpieces, and the event itself recedes further and further into the mists of history and the fakery of Saroyan's movie.
In the end, "Ararat" has enough artistry and intelligence - and enough commitment from Egoyan, producer Robert Lantos and company - to justify more than a higher-than-mixed rating. But when it premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival, there was a striking contrast with its impact and that of the eventual Palme d'Or winner, Roman Polanski's "The Pianist," a brilliant real-life drama of another holocaust in Nazi-occupied Poland. Polanski, a Krakow Jew who experienced many of those terrors firsthand, may be no more emotionally involved with his subject than Egoyan. But by plunging us nakedly into the events, he let us feel the terror and pity of history far more than "Ararat" does, to give us both a powerful experience and an invaluable record. I only wish Egoyan had as well.
3 stars (out of 4)
Directed and written by Atom Egoyan; photographed by Paul Sarossy; edited by Susan Shipton; production designed by Phillip Barker; music by Mychael Danna; produced by Robert Lantos, Egoyan. A Miramax release; opens Wednesday, Nov. 27. Running time: 2:06. MPAA rating: R (for language, violence, sensuality).
Raffi - David Alpay
Edward Saroyan - Charles Aznavour
Rouben - Eric Bogosian
Ani - Arsenee Khanjian
Ali/Jevdet Bey - Elias Koteas
David - Christopher Plummer
Philip - Brent Carver
Celia - Marie-Josee Croze Martin/Clarence Ussher - Bruce Greenwood
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.