By Jeffrey M. Anderson
In 1997, acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan had a good year. Hisfilm The Sweet Hearafter came out at just the right time, and clickedwith American audiences. It was his highest-grossing film in the UnitedStates and earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director.
Though interesting, his follow-up film, Felicia's Journey, failed to rouse the same kind of enthusiasm.
His newest film, Ararat, which opened in Bay Area theaters Wednesday, comes with an Oscar pedigree; it's as if Egoyan threw up his hands, got down on his knees and begged the Academy to love him again.
Egoyan has channeled a true story of devastating power, and while he earns big points for revealing it to the world, he takes two steps backward by trying to fit it within the confines of a fiction film. It's the type of stunt the Academy loves: a powerful political message stuffed into an otherwise mediocre film.
But Ararat isn't a complete failure. It's an intermittently absorbing film done in Egoyan's trademark style: icy smooth, moderately quiet and extraordinarily intelligent.
Ararat centers on a Canadian film production directed by Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour, from Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player) that depicts the 1915 slaughter of nearly 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks under the Ottoman Empire.
Though one of the biggest cases of genocide outside of the Holocaust, it's not well known. Apparently, even in the 1930s, Hitler, trying to justify his own evil deeds, posed the question, "Who remembers the extermination of the Armenians?"
Filmmaker Saroyan focuses his film-within-the-film's story on a young boy who escapes the slaughter and grows up to be the successful painter Arshile Gorky. Saroyan and his producer (Eric Bogosian) hire a clueless Turkish-Canadian actor (Elias Koteas) to play the film's bad guy, as well as a consultant, Ani (Arsinee Khanjian, Egoyan's wife), an expert on Gorky.
Meanwhile, Ani's teenage son, Raffi (David Alpay), visits Armenia in an effort to better understand his heritage. On his way back to Canada, David (Christopher Plummer), a customs officer who is just about to retire, stops him on suspicion of carrying drugs inside metal film cans.
Egoyan flip-flops between the various stories, and relies on David to carry the narrative. David, who knows nothing about 1915 Armenia, asks questions and Raffi supplies the answers. Egoyan then fills in the details by allowing us to visit the fictional film set, as well as showing us images of Gorky painting a picture of his lost mother.
Ararat often attempts to dig even deeper into characters' histories. Ani has a strange back-story in which she may or may not have killed her first husband, and her stepdaughter (and Raffi's lover!), Celia (Marie-Josee Croze), becomes obsessed with finding out what happened.
But Egoyan is so close to his material -- he's part Armenian himself -- that he doesn't notice the portions that don't work. Plummer's character is nothing more than a device for extracting narrative, not unlike the "editor" character Anthony Hopkins played in Chaplin (1992).
Nor does Egoyan seem to notice or care that the film-within-the-film (also called Ararat) is crushingly boring. (If he does notice, he doesn't make any comment on it.)
Egoyan's cool style often covers his blunders. In one scene, Ani barges onto the movie set, where the actor playing an American doctor (Bruce Greenwood) goes into a trance. He's saying his lines, talking about the wounded children around him, but addressing Ani personally. Egoyan manages to get away with delivering this powerful information in a strangely ham-fisted way.
Ararat may deserve a Nobel Prize for telling the important story of the Armenian slaughter. But as a film, it's too uneven and unappealing to make an artistic impact.