Ararat (2002) / Drama-War

MPAA Rated: R for violence, sexuality/nudity and language
Running Time: 115 min.

Cast: David Alpay, Arsinee Khanjian, Christopher Plummer, Charles Aznavour, Marie-Josee Croze, Simon Abkarian
Director: Atom Egoyan
Screenplay: Atom Egoyan
Review published September 7, 2002

Atom Egoyan's (The Sweet Hereafter, The Captive) Ararat is a drama which obviously must have been one he was trying to knock out of the park, but instead feels more like a bloop single., and while it is more hit than miss, it just wasn't enough to score. 

The reasons behind the making of the film are obvious given Egoyan's background, being of Armenian descent, and like Spielberg did with Schindler's List, he depicts the attempted genocide of his people around the time of World War I by the Turks.  Over a million Armenians were slaughtered, a fact that the Turkish government still denies today, and this mystery of history is the one in which the film tries to uncover.

Ararat is sort of a film within a film, centering around a film production developing a film about the Armenian tragedy, developed by esteemed director Edward Saroyan (Aznavour, The Tin Drum).  In an attempt to bring a more human face to the slaughter, Saroyan brings in a historian, an Armenian woman named Ani (Khanjian, Irma Vep), to serve as an advisor to the film, since she is an expert on the life of painter Arshile Gorky (Abkarian, When the Cat's Away), reported to have eye witnessed the events, and who is to be featured in a supporting role.  

While the film is wrapping up, Ani's son Raffi (Alpay, Man of the Year) finds a calling to travel to the lands where the events took place in hopes of finding footage for the film, and more importantly, perspective on his life and those of his people, although his step-sister (and lover) Celia (Croze, Battlefield Earth) has made it her mission to discredit Ani as the woman who drove her father to commit suicide.  Raffi is stopped by a snooping customs agent while trying to bring the footage back into Canada, and there the flashbacks take place while trying to uncover many truths about Raffi, his mother, his father, and his people.

With such an ambitious endeavor, it must be said that Egoyan had his heart in the right place in making this film.  However, it seems as though he understood that this was an emotional subject for him, and in trying not to put too much emotion into his film, he actually stripped away almost any semblance of feeling to the affair.  The cast of fine actors perform woodenly, delivering lines with little trace of the emotion they might be feeling, and many scenes play out in static fashion, looking like two people in a staring match whose mouths move in alternating fashion, reciting lines of the script.

There are some moments later depicting scenes of the Armenians being raped, tortured and killed in the most brutal of fashions, no doubt meant to shock and disturb us, but curiously lack the emotional context.  Yet, the film they are making looks phony, with goofy moustaches and make-up, almost like the production of a Movie-of-the-Week than Schindler's List.  Egoyan admirably tries to show the other side of the coin, with a character of Turkish descent who argues the flip side, claiming that the Turks felt threatened by the Armenians, and killed them in the name of self-preservation.  Although this is summarily refuted by the film later, it does somehow deflate momentum, until Egoyan's heartfelt film becomes an exercise in exploration, never driving home any lasting message or memorable images that would seek to help us sympathize with the plight of a people who were victims of such unfathomable hate.

In the end, Egoyan does create a successful film, because it does bring to light an event that seems curiously ignored by most history books, and overshadowed by the Holocaust which would happen over twenty years later.  There is also a nice recurring theme of trust and belief that resonates strongly amid all of the smaller storylines that nicely supports the film's main event.  There should be no shame for Egoyan in his attempt to create a testament of his ancestors.  Try as he might, Ararat falls short of greatness because it's ultimately an intellectual rendering of a film where emotion should have reigned supreme.

Qwipster's rating:

2002 Vince Leo