To dwell on a historic tragedy or not

November 15, 2002
Source: The New York Times

By Stephen Holden

The ideas jostling through "Ararat," Atom Egoyan's profound reflection on historical memory, tumble off the screen in such heady profusion that while watching the movie you may worry that you'll miss something important if you so much as blink. The catalytic event around which it spins those ideas is Turkey's elimination through massacre and forced deportation of more than a million of its Armenian citizens (two-thirds of the country's Armenian population) in 1915, a catastrophe that remains largely swept under the rug of world history. Because Mr. Egoyan is Canadian-Armenian, "Ararat" has an especially deep personal resonance. Throughout the film, you can feel him brooding passionately on questions of remembrance and denial in an obsessive quest for a way to take in the catastrophe without letting its anguish devour him. One paradoxical question that "Ararat" confronts is whether it is possible to leave the past and its pain behind while retaining lessons that can be absorbed only by chewing on history's bitter residue. "Ararat," which opens today in Manhattan and Los Angeles, is informed by the nagging fact that Turkey to this day officially denies this historical tragedy. Although the film is ultimately committed to the belief that anguished remembrance is far preferable to willful amnesia, it touches on both sides. Like all of Mr. Egoyan's films, "Ararat" is a multilayered work that burrows ever more deeply into its subject as it goes along. This director has always been fascinated with how film and video distort the reality they purport to reveal. A searching question embodied in the very structure of the film is how a historical trauma like the Armenian catastrophe should be represented in the movies and television. As "Ararat" follows the making of a movie about that catastrophe, titled "Ararat," it suggests how films process unimaginable horror into high-minded but manipulative entertainment. As the making of the movie within a movie unfolds, atrocities as hideous as any committed during wartime, are discreetly but devastatingly re-enacted for the camera. After a forced march into the desert of what is now Libya(sic) [Syria], mounted Turkish soldiers furiously slash women and children to death. In the most horrifying moment, a group of young women, forced to dance naked, are doused with kerosene and burned alive. (All we see are the reflections of the flames mingling with their screams.) At these moments it's easy to forget that what's on the screen is an artful re-creation of documented events. (Much of the documentation comes from Clarence Ussher's 1917 memoir, "An American Physician in Turkey." Ussher, played by Bruce Greenwood, appears as a character in the film within the film.) But more than once that illusion is pointedly shattered when the camera pulls away to reveal the crew behind the scenes, and we are forced to acknowledge the power of cinematic artifice and consider the responsibility that goes with that power. Many of the fictional creators of the film within a film and the actors portraying them are (like Mr. Egoyan) of Armenian descent, which adds another layer of emotion. Those characters include the director, Edward (Charles Aznavour), described as two decades past his prime, and the screenwriter, Rouben (Eric Bogosian), a commercially savvy eager beaver who is all too ready to take dramatic license when the opportunity presents itself. As if there already weren't enough layers to the film, "Ararat" shows how an 87-year-old historical trauma still reverberates through the lives of contemporary Armenians living on another continent. The closest person to a central character is Raffi (David Alpay), a young Canadian-Armenian filmmaker and assistant on the movie within a movie, whose father died 15 years earlier while trying to assassinate a Turkish diplomat. Raffi, who has been brought up by his mother, Ani (Arsinée Khanjian), to view his father as a hero, is having an affair with his stepsister Celia (Marie-Josée Croze), who is mourning her own father, whom she believes was murdered or driven to suicide by Ani. Ani, an art historian and an expert on Arshile Gorky, the Armenian painter who grew up in the area where the killings took place (he was 11 at the time), vehemently denies her stepdaughter's charges. In her lectures she expounds movingly on one of Gorky's greatest paintings, "Portrait of the Artist and His Mother" (1928-36), which the film portrays as an essential touchstone to Armenian cultural identity. Celia attends these lectures to heckle Ani about her father's death. Gorky's spirit is the most powerful of the many ghosts haunting "Ararat." There are recurrent images of the painter (played by Simon Abkarian), who immigrated to the United States in 1920 (he committed suicide in 1948), contemplating the canvas and weeping as he applies the finishing touches. As the screenplay for the film within a film is completed, the commercially opportunistic decision is made to shoehorn in the 11-year-old Gorky as a brave rifle-bearing child dispatched from the besieged Armenian community on a mission to solicit American intervention, even though there is no evidence to suggest the real Gorky played such a role. If these scenes lend the film in progress a heart-wrenching undertow, they compromise its integrity. In yet another leitmotif, Raffi, returning to Canada from Armenia carrying several cans of film, is stopped by David (Christopher Plummer), a customs official who suspects him of smuggling heroin into the country. As Raffi's explanations for his trip grow more convoluted and vague, his interrogation by the officer, who is spending his last day on the job before retirement, turns into another complex dialogue on truth, denial and accountability. "Ararat," is hands down the year's most thought-provoking film. But it pays a price for its intricate intellectual gamesmanship. At a certain point fairly early on, its Chinese-box structure begins to seem overly contrived. That point is reached in a scene depicting the customs inspector's own intergenerational family conflicts involving his son Philip (Brent Carver). Although those conflicts eventually affect the outcome of the interrogation, the scene still seems an unnecessary extra wrinkle. As "Ararat" hardens into an essayistic moral puzzle, dramatic credibility is increasingly sacrificed for intellectual precision. A number of the performances seem boxed in by the structure. Mr. Aznavour and Mr. Bogosian emerge as little more than designated mouthpieces in an elaborate conceptual design. Others, however, rise above their dialectical functions. Mr. Plummer's inspector is touchingly human and intuitive. Even more affecting is Ms. Khanjian's and Mr. Alpay's portrayal of a mother-son bond as fierce as the one depicted in Gorky's great painting. Until its final moments this almost great movie feels as if it's racing against itself in a neck-and-neck battle between its troubled heart and its egg-shaped head. The heart wins by a nose. "Ararat" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has scenes of violence and sexual situations.


Written and directed by Atom Egoyan; director of photography, Paul Sarossy; edited by Susan Shipton; production designer, Phillip Barker; produced by Robert Lantos and Mr. Egoyan; released by Miramax Films. Running time: 116 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Charles Aznavour (Edward), Eric Bogosian (Rouben), Brent Carver (Philip), Marie-Josée Croze (Celia), Bruce Greenwood (Martin/Clarence Ussher), Arsinée Khanjian (Ani), Elias Koteas (Ali/Jedvet Bey), Simon Abkarian (Arshile Gorky), Christopher Plummer (David), David Alpay (Raffi) and Lousnak (Shushan Gorky).