Atom Egoyan has never been known to pander to commercial tastes, and this latest effort is arguably the toughest sell of his career to date. Ararat is a complex, ambitious and controversial work that centres on the Armenian genocide of 1915, and while it can’t be described as 100% successful, it is nonetheless a great deal more rewarding and entertaining than it might initially sound.
The Armenian massacre has long since been a contentious issue for reasons beyond the obvious. Although it has been nearly 90 years since it occurred, many Armenians have never given up on pushing for recognition of the event, while Turkey denies perpetrating such a massacre. It is a widely held opinion that such atrocities largely went unnoticed due to the distracting force of World War I, and such history sits uncomfortably with Armenians and Turks alike. As a Canadian of Armenian extraction, Atom Egoyan has decided to voice his opinion through Ararat, although it’s fair to say that this isn’t a piece of rabble-rousing that demonises the Turks à la Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1978).
Ararat is very much an ensemble piece, and as such no particular character dominates the narrative. The more prominent characters include art historian Ani (Khanjian, best known for Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl ), whose son Raffi (David Alpay) is in the process of being interrogated by Canadian customs official David (Christopher Plummer), whose son is involved in a relationship with actor Ali (Elias Koteas), who in turn is starring in a film about the Armenian genocide directed by Edward (Charles Aznavour). There are other connections between the protagonists – too many to run through here – but as the story unfolds we begin to connect the rather fraught, uncertain existence of the various characters with the hazy confusion of the events of 1915.
While Ararat will undoubtedly be viewed as another cog in the push for recognition of the massacre, the film plays in an altogether different key. It’s as if Egoyan is trying to make sense of all the lives that have been affected (directly or otherwise) by the events of 1915, and he appears far more concerned with how the legacy is dealt with as opposed to apportioning blame. There are elements of the film that don’t quite ring true: David, the customs officer, is working his last-ever shift before retirement, and his questioning of the naïve Raffi is played out as a mutual dark night of the soul. Although Plummer is excellent as David, it is very hard to believe that any customs official would take this approach with a suspect; the conclusion of the interview is even harder to swallow than what has preceded it.
In the end the film offers far more positives than negatives, and probably about three-quarters is truly engaging. Undoubtedly overambitious in its reach, Ararat will nonetheless stand as one of the most intelligent films of the year.