Raffi (David Alpay) is a Canadian young man of Armenian descent who has several tragedies in his background. His father was killed trying to assassinate a Turkish diplomat, and bitter, public antagonism exists between his mother Ani (Arsinée Khanjian) and his stepsister and lover, Celia (Marie-Josée Croze) who believes that Ani is responsible for the suicide of her father, Ani’s second husband. Meanwhile, a famous film director, Edward Saroyan, (Charles Aznavour) comes to Toronto to make a film about the genocide carried out against the Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Having recently finished a book on the painter Gorky, who witnessed the massacres as a child, Ani reluctantly agrees to act as a consultant on the project.
Review by Jake Wilson:
Few would doubt that Atom Egoyan is a intelligent filmmaker, and when he’s at his best – as in The Sweet Hereafter – his careful, adult approach to painful subjects can be intensely moving as well. This elaborately plotted drama about the Armenian genocide of the 1910s, may be his most ambitious film, linking his perennial theme of private mourning with the large-scale, communal traumas of history. But rather than directly dramatise this history, Egoyan makes strategic use of a typically oblique film-within-a-film structure – allowing him to include snatches of deliberately stiff costume melodrama and stage a hilltop massacre as a thrilling large-scale action sequence while at the same time acknowledging the impossibility of adequately representing horrific events out of a still-contested past.
The period sequences apart, Ararat is not far from Egoyan’s usual stylistic beat, with its palette of metallic blues and greys, its strategic use of digital video inserts (another reminder of the gap between the image and reality) and its maddeningly regular cross-cutting between half-a-dozen subplots widely dispersed in space and time. The basic, rather obvious idea behind all this is that ‘the personal is political’ – and so the struggle over history can be mirrored in a series of one-on-one emotional confrontations, some directly related to the genocide and some less so.
But the various soap-opera intrigues seem contrived and less than fully imagined; Egoyan has never had much humour or concern with plausibility, but here it’s as if he’s too determined to do right by his subject matter to give free rein to his poetic, kinky side. Ultimately, perhaps, the film is less memorable for its big themes than for the eccentric talents of its actors: Elias Koteas’ flailing De Niro impressions, the attractive vehemence of Marie-Josée Croze as Cecila, or the hobbit-like presence of David Alpay, with his wide-eyed, callow intensity.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Told through a kaleidoscopic structure that sometimes gets in the way of the film’s intent to engage us deeply and emotionally, Ararat is nevertheless a powerful film made with passion by all concerned. Of course the subject matter provides much of the power, and despite the overly elaborate storytelling methods, Armenian director Atom Egoyan pulls enough cinematic rabbits out of the hat to sustain tension and attention.
It is also propelled by a large orchestral score with a sense of occasion, and the characterisations are equally well orchestrated – and performed. And Armenian singer/actor Charles Aznavour is compelling, powerful as the filmmaker. The opening scene between him and Plummer works well to show much about both characters and to draw us in to the emotional setting. But the film fails to maximise its full potential other than as a historic piece, with the interpersonal dramas and relationship a little skewed or manipulated to give Egoyan the contemporary structure within which he can explore this awful chapter in his country’s history. But, as I say, it deserves attention and should be seen for what it is: a deeply felt retelling of yet another horrific war tragedy that defies understanding. And it is important that stories like this one are recorded in their dramatic form on film.
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(Canada / France)
CAST: David Alpay, Arsinée Khanjian, Christopher Plummer, Charles Aznavour, Marie-Josée Croze, Eric Bogosian, Brent Carver, Bruce Greenwood
PRODUCER: Atom Egoyan, Robert Lantos
DIRECTOR: Atom Egoyan
SCRIPT: Atom Egoyan
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Paul Sarossy
EDITOR: Susan Shipton
MUSIC: Mychael Danna
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Phillip Barker
RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Beyond
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Sydney & Melbourne: November 20, 2003