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Ararat (2002)


Life must be a nonstop party at the old Egoyan homestead. Our pal Atom comes home, tired from a long day’s work, sits down for dinner with his wife Arsinée Khanjian, and finally they retire to the living room… where they get to discuss Armenia at length.

Atom Egoyan, the avant-garde Canadian filmmaker born in Egypt to Armenian parents, has a chip on his shoulder the size of the Great White North. And that chip is Armenia. Obviously harboring a deep guilt for his living high on the hog in the West while his ancestors were massacred in the motherland, Egoyan never misses a chance to revisit Armenia as a theme in his films — even if, say, it’s a movie about a strip club and a dead girl (Exotica). And invariably Egoyan casts his wife Khanjian as an Armenian of some sort, always taking the time to let us know she’s Armenian with the subtext that she should be pitied.

Now the problem with this in Egoyan’s earlier works (of which I am a great fan) is that like most people, I couldn’t find Armenia on a map even if it was labeled in big red letters. I sure as hell couldn’t tell you that the Turks executed a holocaust against the Armenians right before WWI, and I absolutely would have had no idea what the Turks’ motivation might have been.

Well, at last Egoyan has gone and made an entire film about Armenia. The titular Ararat is a big mountain in the region (and allegedly the place where Noah’s Ark landed, but that’s another story). So now he has the chance to set the record straight — and hopefully put Armenia behind him as a filmmaker.

In typical Egoyan fashion, the story is incredibly convoluted and self-referential, so try to keep up. At the core of the film is another film being made (called Ararat, of course), a historical epic about — you guessed it — the Turkish genocide against the Armenians. An Armenian movie director (Charles Aznavour) and an Armenian writer (Eric Bogosian) have concocted a thorough recreation of the events, but something’s missing. They hear an art lecture about an Armenian painter named Arshile Gorky (a real Armenian painter) and decide to work him into the story as a kind of hero. Meanwhile, the lecturer (Khanjian) has her own demons, including two dead husbands — one a suicide, one a terrorist killed during an attempted assassination against a diplomat — and a conflicted son named Raffi (David Alpay) who’s sleeping with his stepsister from the other marriage.

Raffi’s got some of mom’s genes — soon enough he’s on an unauthorized trip to find his roots in Armenia, shooting video of Mt. Ararat and sent home with a few sealed film cans courtesy of a Turkish soldier. Is it really film (which can’t be exposed to light), or is it drugs? A retiring customs officer (Christopher Plummer) quizzes Raffi about his trip, revealing a story that plays out in four time periods — during the customs inquisition, during the filmmaking process a year earlier, during the actual holocaust in 1915-1918, and during Gorky’s painting of a pivotal work, circa 1940.

This is a movie is about history and its interpretation. Much like the holocaust of the Jews is disputed by revisionists, Egoyan tells us that the reality behind the Armenian holocaust is often disputed as well by the ignorant. Was Turkey actually at war with Armenia? Didn’t many Turks die in the conflict too? Or was it really genocide? (These are all questions asked in the movie — this is not my interpretation of the events; I certainly don’t deny them.) But history has forgotten Armenia, and Egoyan wants to remind us that something happened there — though of course, not even he can any longer be sure precisely what.

Ararat is at its finest when our scholar is brought to the movie set and points out what’s wrong with the film-within-a-film’s recreation of the past. Most notably, Mt. Ararat isn’t visible from the town where the film is based, yet a huge matte painting of Ararat looms over the set. And what does she think about a scene when a young Gorky retrieves a Turk’s rifle from the battlefield? Is all this poetic license or is it revisionism? Egoyan is asking if it’s OK to rewrite history at all, no matter how subtle the change. It’s a slippery slope with no easy answer, and Egoyan doesn’t ever make the call for us, ultimately leaving the film open-ended (while still managing to castigate the Turks). (That said, Egoyan’s interpretation of Gorky’s art is quite a stretch itself.)

Less successful are the various subplots Egoyan uses to try to make his history lesson more watchable. The customs plot is staid (and borrowed wholesale from Exotica). The incest story is creepy and totally out of place (and also borrowed from Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter). Bits about shooting video overseas are taken from Calendar (also set in Armenia). And the mystery surrounding the death of the art lecturer’s husbands is never really resolved; I kept trying to figure out if one of them was supposed to have been Gorky. (No, I later decided.) In fact, there are so many familiar faces here from Egoyan’s past films — Khanjian, Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas — that Egoyan is starting to become as self-derivative (and lazy) as John Waters.

At the same time, the movie is so convoluted Egoyan ends up resorting to title cards to tell us what year we’re in — something he’s never done in past films — because figuring out what we’re seeing was half the fun. Here, Egoyan is so intent on Exposing The Truth About Armenia that his story structure suffers. It’s all very informative but hardly inspiring. (And Egoyan even has a ‘this story is true’ disclaimer before the credits roll.)

I feel like I’m harping too much, because I did enjoy much of the movie. It’s needlessly cryptic and preachy, but it bears the craftsmanship of a master. While the film is substantially flawed as a work of art, it really is a powerful story and succeeds in exposing our willingness to forget the atrocities of the past. Egoyan’s elliptical narrative style is unfortunately out of place, but some stellar performances, rich dialogue, and a few choice scenes make it worth a look. Unfortunately, Egoyan’s movie is having the opposite effect than that intended — as I write this a day after the screening, I’m already starting to forget it.

Ararat‘s DVD adds a commentary track and deleted scenes, plus tons of other extras. Even if you don’t swoon to the film, you’ll appreciate the disc’s thoroughness.

Still waiting for action.