Starring: David Alpay, Charles Aznavour, Eric Bogosian, Christopher Plummer, Arsinee Khanjian, Marie-Josee Croze, Elias Koteas, Bruce Greenwood
Rated R for Violence, Sexuality/Nudity, and Language
Atom Egoyan's films have always been intellectually demanding. Dense in both narrative and character, he doesn't allow the audience to turn off their brains. Like "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Adoration," his two other movies that I've seen, "Ararat" is jam-packed. Egoyan has a lot to say, but the constraints of the film and his limited vision work against it.
As is his style, "Ararat" is less about story than about a diverse group of characters surrounding a central focus. In "The Sweet Hereafter," it was a bus accident, while in "Adoration" it was an act of terrorism. Here, it's the Armenian Genocide. Two filmmakers, director Edward Saroyan (Aznavour) and screenwriter Rouben (Bogosian), are making a movie about the genocide, and have hired Ani (Khanjian, Egoyan's wife) as a consultant, and have used an Armenian artist named Arshile Gorsky (Simon Abkarian as an adult, Garen Boyajian as a child) as a window into the story. Ani's son, Raffi (Alpay) a production assistant, but his relationship with his mother is fractured. He is in love with his stepsister, Celia (Croze), who blames Ani for her father's death. All this comes out to a customs agent named David (Plummer), who is approaching retirement and having a tough time dealing with his son Philip (Brent Carver) being in a relationship with a man, Ali (Koteas), who in turn is playing the villain in the movie about the genocide.
All of this seems contrived, but it really isn't. Crisscrossed relationships are a trademark of Egoyan, and this is no different. However, I will argue that Egoyan is too ambitious. He's trying to tell a half dozen stories with twice as many characters while simultaneously giving the audience a history lesson about the genocide. It might be too much for even the most skilled director to handle, especially with a running time of under two hours. "Schindler's List," the film's closest cousin, was well over an hour longer.
On the acting front, there isn't a weak performance to be found. Everyone buries themselves deep into their characters, but no one does any showboating. This is an ensemble piece, and they have a deep respect for the material. Even a newbie actor like David Alpay (this was his debut performance) can hold his own against the likes of Christopher Plummer and Elias Koteas. Egoyan regular Bruce Greenwood also makes a brief appearance as the lead actor.
Still, due to its scope and the nature of its construction, it's hard to care about the characters as people. I felt more of an impact from the film as a whole than I did from any of the specific storylines. This is one case where the film is more than the sum of its parts. The ending doesn't really work because the parallelism, another common theme in Egoyan's work, isn't set up well.
I do think that "Ararat" is worth seeing for those who are up to the challenge. This isn't a "sit back and relax" kind of movie, and even on that level, it still has its problems, such as a jumpy and occasionally confusing narrative. But for those who take the chance, it's not going to be one they forget easily.