Being of the minority who did not worship Schindler's List (vital message, tedious movie), it's easy to feel skeptical of the preachy delivery of Ararat, which concerns not the Jewish Holocaust but the Armenian one, its genocidal forebear of 1915-1918. Armenian-Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan (The Adjuster, The Sweet Hereafter) has -- like Spielberg with Schindler -- crafted an important and ambitious film, but similarly, the experience is strangely cold and detached, in this case because Egoyan too often substitutes ham-handed lecturing for passion. The resulting project matters much and should be seen, but how much it will be felt depends on your specific level of patience for a director who presumes audience comprehension to be at about a fourth-grade level. (At least he's a shoo-in for Hollywood.)
Our primary protagonist here is Raffi (newcomer David Alpay), who's not the "Baby Beluga" guy, but a young Armenian-Canadian filmmaker who screws his stepsister, Celia (Marie-Josée Croze), to strains of Armenian-American rock band System of a Down when he's not struggling to keep her from publicly attacking and humiliating his mother, Ani (Egoyan's wife and favorite actress, Arsinée Khanjian). The girl wants to ruin Ani's life -- not because the elder's art-history lectures are trite (boy, are they!), but because Celia believes that her father's premature death is Ani's fault. It's that kind of family.
Sorrow and recovery are the main thrusts of Ararat, stuffed into every moment to the point of suffocation, but it's clear that this is Egoyan's goal. (It's like that old joke: "I've suffered for my art; now it's your turn.") To his credit, he strives hard to layer his project with history and humanity, which greatly enhances the experience when his leaden themes (mainly, "Torture is bad") and absurdly earnest direction of actors threaten to sink things. Ani, who is obsessed with depressed Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky (played in elegant flashbacks by Simon Abkarian), is employed as a historical advisor by screenwriter Rouben (Eric Bogosian) and director Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour) on a film about the systematic elimination of Armenians by the Turks. Moving sometimes dully but occasionally brilliantly among the period setting, the movie sets (which play around with geography concerning the great mount, Ararat) and modern life, Egoyan weaves together a rotten past, a bewildered present and a truly hopeful future.
Egoyan's not always generous toward his audience -- the graphic brutality of the Turks in flashback feels mean and ugly but not informative -- and his scenarios often feel forced (his characters blurt historical facts as if they're discussing the weather). But the fellow who put Ian Holm in The Sweet Hereafter and Sarah Polley in Exotica knows how to cast a great actor. Here we get Elias Koteas playing both a Turkish villain and a modern, part-Turkish actor with attitude. ("This is a new country," he explains, leaving some estimable doubt, "so let's drop the fuckin' history and get on with it.") Equally impressive is Christopher Plummer as a cucumber-cool customs officer stuck with the unenviable job of sorting out Raffi's baggage on the lad's return from Turkey.
Unfortunately, the director's efforts to link the widely denied holocaust with what seems to be a semi-autobiographical portrait tend to be a bit iffy, and in the lead, young Alpay lacks the spectrum of emotion to convey Egoyan's heavy words. It also doesn't help that the movie leans too often toward navel-gazing of the Oedipal sort: It may be honest, but it sure isn't engaging to be forced to stare at son and mother as if they were the center of the galaxy.
Speaking of which, since plenty of snoots sneered at the latest Star Wars release, it bears noting that Egoyan's narrative arc is clearly influenced by the magnificently derivative work of George Lucas. As a movie -- strictly a movie -- one simply cannot say that the "reality" of Ararat is amazing and that the "fantasy" of Star Wars sucks, because the two are, in essence, the same story. From the lone hero to the plundered desert landscape, from the sibling love to the benevolent elder guide, and from the evil empire to the reunion with the dead father, the elements are just about identical (give or take an extraneous gay subplot). It's only a miserable shame that the ghastly events leading up to Ararat weren't science fiction.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.