Movies rarely get more ambitious than Ararat, Atom Egoyan's latest; not only does the director attempt to chronicle and put in context a spectacular although now sadly obscure act of genocide against the Armenian people in the early days of the 20th Century, but he also attempts to tell several modern, more intimate tales that not only relate in unexpected ways with the aforementioned historical atrocity, but which also somehow all relate to one another, all capped with the making of a film within the film. The result is kind of like what would happen if Oliver Stone and Robert Altman stayed up all night jamming at the keyboard together, which is to say that it is both tedious and mesmerizing, swarming with incidents and ideas like a banquet being overrun with ants.
Most Americans (most of the world, really) is unaware of the unspeakable crimes the Turks of the Ottoman Empire perpetrated against the Armenian people in 1915, when the Turks removed Armenians from their native Anatolian land in East Turkey through huge, forced marches through the deserts of what later became Syria; more than 1 million human beings—nearly two-thirds of Armenia's population—were massacred by the Turks or met their deaths through starvation or illness as they straggled across the burning sands. Even now, despite mountains of evidence, the government of Turkey refuses to admit that the horrors of 1915 took place.
Flash forward to present-day Canada, where a famous, Canadian-Armenian director, Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour), is preparing to launch production on a movie about the genocide; he and his producer (Eric Bogosian) recruit an adviser for the project, and against all odds, it is Raffi (David Alpay), the teenage son of this adviser, whose story we follow most closely. But everybody in the picture has his or her own tangled plot thread (Christopher Plummer also works his way into the mix as a customs inspector with serious family troubles), and by film's end, you'll be dizzy and exhausted trying to keep track of it all.
Dizzy and exhausted isn't usually what you're looking for in a film-going experience—unless it's the kind of dizzy and exhausted you get from a good action picture, but trust me, this is not that kind of dizzy and exhausted. Ararat is not a good time at the movies, but it sets some seemingly unattainable goals for itself and almost sort of attains them, as Egoyan—a Canadian-Armenian himself and the busy brain behind such films as Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter—manages to pack a century of artfully interrelated fact and fiction into a scant few hours. Amid the drama, Egoyan even finds time for some satire, as we are treated to the endless compromises, both artistic and historical, the hapless Saroyan endures on his Canadian set in order to get the picture made at all. Egoyan, thank goodness, is a far more stubborn and idiosyncratic talent than Saroyan, and his film, for all its flaws, makes it to the screen with his own unique vision intact.
ARARAT WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY ATOM EGOYAN; PRODUCED BY EGOYAN AND ROBERT LANTOS; AND STARS DAVID ALPAY, ARSINEE KHANJIAN, CHARLES AZNAVOUR, CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER AND ERIC BOGOSIAN. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS SOUTH COAST VILLAGE, SANTA ANA.