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Ararat Print E-mail
Tuesday, 22 July 2003


Miramax Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: R (violence, sexuality/nudity and language)
starring: David Alpay, Arsinie Khanjian, Christopher Plummer, Charles Aznavour, Marie-Josie Croze, Eric Bogosian, Brent Carver, Bruce Greenwood
release year: 2002
film rating: Four stars
sound/picture: Three stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

"Ararat" is complex, multi-layered and deeply ambitious, the only movie from Western culture to confront the 1915 Turkish massacre of the Christian Armenian residents of Anatolia, a part of Turkey. To this day, the Turkish government stoutly denies that any such event too place, though survivors, including American missionary Clarence Ussher, told of their experiences. Over a million people were killed, in combat, in brutal executions, and on a forced march through what is now Syria.

Atom Egoyan was born in Egyptian of Armenian parents, but was raised in British Columbia. As a director (and frequent writer), he worked his way up from episodes of TV series shot in Canada (it's hard to imagine this serious, thoughtful man directing a "Freddie's Nightmares," but he did). When he moved into feature films, the projects he chose were very personal -- "The Adjuster," "Felicia's Journey," "The Sweet Hereafter" -- but clearly the story of the genocide of Armenians was not far from his mind.

In his excellent, fascinating commentary track on this handsome DVD set from Miramax, Egoyan concentrates on explaining why he chose this scene, what he intended with that scene, and how all of this complex film interrelates; sometimes the connections are subtle and elusive. The track is well worth listening to once you have watched the intricately interwoven story that is "Ararat."

Egoyan also says that he was at first tempted to do a historical movie -- it would have to be an epic -- on the Armenian massacre, but also wanted to demonstrate why examining this often-shunned issue is important to people of today. And he wanted to show how strongly it can affect today's people of Armenian descent. Many of those connected with the film are of Armenian descent, including actors Arsinie Khanjian (Egoyan's wife), Charles Aznavour and Eric Bogosian.

The idea of an epic seems to have somewhat intimidated Egoyan, both in terms of the scale on which he would have had to work, and in trying to decide how he could work with this familiar, even hackneyed, format to say something meaningful to people of today.

Instead, he adopted an extremely complicated format that will intimidate, maybe even alienate, some viewers. It can take a while to gather all the threads of the story, to see how the characters interrelate, to understand how all this connects to the genocide. In some cases, it's possible viewers will learn of some connections only when they listen to the commentary track.

Egoyan has liked stories about people on the verge of being outsiders, trying to fit into society (or at last alienating themselves from it). And he tells his stories through his characters, never more complexly than in "Ararat."

If there is a central character, it's Raffi (David Alpay, making his film debut), who's about 18; his father was killed 15 years ago when he tried to assassinate a Turkish diplomat. His mother Ani (Khanjian) remarried; her husband, who already had a daughter, Celia (Marie Josie Croze), died in a fall that has never been explained to Celia's satisfaction. She and Raffi, though step-siblings, are enthusiastic lovers, but he cannot convince her to stop harassing Ani about what happened to her father.

Ani is a professor of art at a Canadian college, and has recently written a book on a (real-life) Armenian artist who survived the genocide as a boy, and who changed his name to Arshile Gorky (Simon Abkarian) when he moved to the United States. Ani, and the film, focuses intently on Gorky's most famous painting, of himself as a boy with his mother. The painting was derived from a formal, posed photo of the two of them taken prior to 1915.

Charles Aznavour is Edward Saroyan, once a highly-regarded director who has now fallen from grace somewhat. He has come to Canada to make a film (also called "Ararat") about the massacre. Throughout Egoyan's "Ararat," we see scenes from Saroyan's film, sometimes presented as reality, sometimes on a movie set -- Egoyan's camera pulls back to reveal Saroyan's camera.

Saroyan and his writer, Rouben (Bogosian), visit one of Ani's lectures on Gorky, and include Gorky as a boy in their film, also hiring Ani as a technical advisor. Saroyan's movie is largely based on the memoirs of an American medical missionary, Clarence Ussher, who was in the Armenian city of Van when the Turks lay siege to it. In Saroyan's film, Ussher is played by young actor Martin Harcourt (Bruce Greenwood). There are times when Greenwood has a speech that we cannot tell originates from Ussher's words, or Greenwood's own passionate commitment to the film.

All of these threads are woven together through the character of David (Christopher Plummer), a customs inspector at Toronto's airport. He's become alienated from his son Philip (Brent Carver), who left his wife for a man, actor Ali (Elias Koteas), who's delighted to win the role in Saroyan's film of the brutal, murderous Turkish officer Jevdet Bey (a real historical figure). David is depressed and unhappy, concerned about the separation from his son (a museum guard, who's seen at some of Ani's lectures). When Raffi arrives from Turkey, David begins interrogating him about some cans of exposed film he has. David thinks they might contain drugs, but he's also fascinated by the stories of the movie, and of the Armenian massacre, that Raffi tells him. David is the first person we see in the movie, talking to Saroyan on the director's arrival, telling him he cannot bring a pomegranate through customs.
As you can see, this is a complex movie with many important characters, all of whom interrelate on some level. It takes a few minutes to get into the rhythms of the film, and no doubt there are some who never will. That's okay; this is not a "popular entertainment' movie in the first place.

Egoyan directs the film-within-the-film to look like a standard epic film, with somewhat over-the-top characters and some stereotypes, but he also uses it as a convenient way of explaining to us in the audience details about the genocide that would otherwise be hard to convey. But he also uses his present-day characters to comment on the entire idea; sometimes this is oblique -- Celia's demands that Ani explain the history of her father's death relates indirectly to those who cannot get the Turks to admit to the reality of the massacre. Sometimes it's more direct -- Raffi, who works on Saroyan's film, is confused and puzzled by what he sees. He tries to talk to Ali, who's half Turkish (and confused himself), about some of this, to get Ali to admit that the massacres took place. But Ali, essentially representing many people today, wants to walk away from a history that, for him, is over and done with.

Ani's deep devotion to the paintings of Arshile Gorky (Egoyan's own son, seen in the film, is named Arshile), is partly related to the idea that Gorky survived the massacre. While he was in Turkey, Raffi shot a lot of video of the area that had been Anatolia; he shows some of this to a fascinated David in the customs-inspection office, and the footage, really shot by Hrair Hawk Khatcherian, is included as a supplement on the DVD.

There are conflicts between many of the characters; Raffi and Celia (who, we learn later, sells drugs) love each other but frequently argue. He and Celia also argue with Ani over different issues. Rouben, the screenwriter, angers the actor Martin by his talkative intensity, and refusal to understand that Martin himself had actually done research for his role. David is alienated from Philip, Raffi confronts Ali, and is confronted by David. Almost the only character who doesn't have a conflict with anyone is the small, quiet, intense director, Edward Saroyan. (In supplemental material, we see that the great Charles Aznavour is not much like Saroyan.)

Extremely detailed information is passed on to the viewer in complex ways, never overstated (except in a few of the scenes from Saroyan's film-within-the-film). There's also a text supplement of the history of the genocide.

The film is, if anything, too intricate and subtle, but Egoyan has always assumed he makes films for intelligent adults who are willing to give him two hours or so to make his points within a network of good acting and strong characters. Christopher Plummer gives a brilliant performance, understated, quiet and intense. The same is true of Aznavour and Arsinie Khanjian, who at times seems on the verge of tears, holding herself back by inner strength. The only actor whose performance is a little weak is that of David Alpay, Raffi. He's a shade too intense at times, but his work is clearly heart-felt.

Egoyan's commentary is simply outstanding; he talks about cultural transpositions, the importance of objects that people make and how they use them, the idea that we each carry truths that can come into conflicts with the truths of others. It's an extraordinarily good feature of this disc; after listening to Egoyan, you like his film more.

There are also some deleted scenes, with an optional narration by Egoyan, including one that would have shaded the movie over into fantasy. (There's a touch of it anyway; at the premiere of Saroyan's film, Ani sees the long-dead Gorky in the lobby.) There are brief interviews with most of the actors and Egoyan, there's a 1995 TV documentary by Egoyan about Gorky's painting, and an excellent making-of short that includes interviews with film workers not usually featured in such things, such as sound engineer Steven Munro.

It's hard not to feel some emotional connection to Egoyan and his film, but he's also such a cool, careful director that the film doesn't quite have the emotional impact or involvement as he clearly intended. But overall, "Ararat" is an impressive movie, and the DVD is one of the best such packages available today.

more details
aspect ratio(s):
letterboxed (16X9 enhanced)
special features: many extras, including making-of, interviews, historical information, etc.; two discs
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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