Director: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Arsinee Khanjian, David Alpay, Christopher Plummer, Marie-Josée Croze
What is truth and is it so delicate that it can be lost in the telling? Many of Atom Egoyan’s films center around this idea, the concept that truth can never quite be absolute, that it shifts according to perspective and is sometimes lost completely. Ararat is no different and is perhaps Egoyan’s most intense attempt to engage with that idea. Centering on the Armenian genocide which, depending on who you ask, did or did not happen, Ararat is an intricate and moving film.
The story has many threads, most of which don’t begin to come together until the end. One involves Ani (Arsinee Khanjian), an art historian with a special interest in Arshile Gorky who agrees to act as an adviser on a film by Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour) which is about the Siege of Van and will feature Gorky as a character. The film stars Martin Harcourt (Bruce Greenwood) as an American missionary and Ali (Elias Koteas), a Turkish-Canadian actor who grows increasingly uncomfortable playing the film’s brutal antagonist. In real life Ali is in a relationship with Philip (Brent Carver) whose conservative father, David (Christopher Plummer), is disapproving. David is a Canadian customs official on the verge of retirement who, on his final day, finds himself confronted with someone he suspects of trying to smuggle heroin into Canada from Turkey. That man is Raffi (David Alpay), who is Ani’s son, who had gone to Turkey in an attempt to reveal the truth about the genocide by capturing what remains of Van. In the midst of all this there is also Celia (Marie-Josée Croze), Raffi’s stepsister (and girlfriend), whose rage over the death of her father threatens to level everything and everyone in her path.
Egoyan moves back and forth between these characters and between reality and the film-within-the-film. On first viewing it can be a bit difficult to get your bearings as a viewer because Egoyan takes his time establishing the context of relationships and scenes, but fortunately Ararat is so engrossing that you’re content to just drift along with it until things solidify and you know what’s what. The narrative ambiguity that marks the first half of the film actually helps drive home the film’s main idea, that absolute truth is ultimately unknowable. When it comes to history, we know bits and pieces, enough to create impressions of a time and place, but never enough to have the complete picture. This is elaborated on more clearly in terms of the film-within-the-film as Ani points out inaccuracies (such as Mount Ararat being visible from the missionary hospital in Van) and her concerns are explained away Edward through the need to simplify and condense things for the sake of conveying the story. We shape history in order to be able to tell it and thus certain nuances must be lost.
Egoyan handles the competing storylines well but, truth be told, some strands ultimately work better than others. Philip, for example, barely factors into the story and his fraught relationship with David is never very deeply explored and, likewise, Ali’s internal crisis and latent feelings of ethnic-based guilt only serve to fill out the fringes of the story. The strongest part of the story is the thread dealing with the complicated relationships between Ani, Raffi and Celia. Celia hates Ani and blames her for the death of her father, which she at first thinks was murder but later decides was a suicide that Ani pushed him to. Celia goes out of her way to try to humiliate Ani and force her to admit to having done wrong, leading to an intense battle between the women. Caught in the middle, Raffi is loyal to his mother but in love with Celia, whose feelings for him are never entirely clear. She perhaps feels something resembling love for him but, more likely, she’s identified him as Ani’s weakness. The conflicts that arise out of these relationships make for some of the film’s most compelling moments, both because the characters are so well constructed and because they’re so well acted. Khanjian won the Genie for Best Actress for this performance and she carries a great deal of the film’s emotional weight. Credit is also due to Croze, whose character keeps the audience on edge whenever she shows up on screen because she seems capable of anything.
Ararat is a film that is obviously very personal to Egoyan, who is himself of Armenian descent, and the film goes to great lengths to expose the horrors endured during the genocide. It is at times an incredibly intense and violent film but Egoyan never lets that aspect dominate the story, instead focusing on how the legacy of violence continues to impact people for generations afterwards. I wouldn't count Ararat as my favourite of Egoyan's films, but I think it's definitely one of his most haunting films and a strong effort all around.