Ararat’s concept has great promise. Reflexivity, depth and a viscerally interesting subject matter ought to make Ararat an outstanding, complex film, particularly in the hands of a director like Atom Egoyan, who is capable of greatness (The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica).
Instead, Ararat feels like a book report from the teacher’s pet. Egoyan so wants the world to know about the plight of the Armenians that he scarcely notices that he has compromised his integrity as an artist. Instead of making an emotional case through film, he overwhelms the audience with facts.
Coming to Canada
R for violence, sex, nudity, language
Ararat introduces us to a community of Armenian-Canadians. They are swarthy people with black hair and intense eyes. They came to Canada a few generations ago from Armenia, which is just east of Turkey and just north of Iran.
Our protagonist is Raffi (David Alpay), a production assistant on a movie. His mother Ani (Arsineé Khanjian) is a scholar on the works of Armenian painter Arshile Gorky. Other key players are an actor, a security guard, and a customs official. The characters are all connected in some way with Gorky, who fled Armenia during World War I, and with a movie called Ararat that’s being directed by an Armenian-Canadian named Saroyan. The movie-within-the-movie is a historical action epic concerned with the acts of genocide the Turks committed against the Armenians in 1915. One of its characters the young Gorky.
Ed Wood Syndrome
The screenplay is afflicted with Ed Wood syndrome. Eric Bogosian, playing an assistant director, tells an actor to read a certain book on Armenian history. The actor says “I’ve already read it,” and then launches in to a description of what the book says and how moving it is. The scene feels like a badly-written radio commercial.
Over and over, scenes of dialogue take place in settings that seem completely arbitrary. One such scene between Raffi and his stepsister opens on a gratuitous shot of them having sex. Dialogue between Raffi and Ali, an actor played by Elias Koteas, takes place in Raffi’s car. There is some justification, as Raffi is assigned to drive him home, but the conversation doesn’t start until they arrive at their destination and park. It is as though Egoyan couldn’t afford a car-mounted camera, so they settled for a senseless compromise.
The worst offense is Christopher Plummer’s customs officer who engages Raffi in a conversation about the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. Plummer’s formidable talents are wasted on lines like “then what happened?” The scene is completely implausible (what customs agent has the time to listen to a lengthy history lesson?), and it commits the cardinal sin in moviemaking — it tells instead of shows. Unlike The Safety of Objects, which also opens this week, Ararat has too much text and not enough subtext.
There is an earnestness in the way Raffi tells the story of the genocide that feels like Egoyan’s own earnestness in making this movie. Both are so eager to tell their story that they don’t even consider whether they are entertaining their audience. At least Raffi’s audience (Plummer’s character) is under the power of the screenwriter and director. He can be forced to ask “then what happened?”
But for us, the film’s audience, you’re much more likely to ask “when will this end?”