06 May 2009

The Decade List: Ararat (2002)

Ararat - dir. Atom Egoyan

Edward (Charles Aznavour), a director twenty years past his prime, finally has the opportunity to make the film he's always needed to make. His only knowledge of his heritage comes from his mother's tales of surviving the devastating effects of the Armenian genocide. The timing couldn't be better for this type of personal "prestige picture," considering both his declining respectability and the release of a new book by an art historian (Arsinée Khanjian) which explores the work of abstract expressionist painter Arshile Gorky and his linkage to the historical tragedy which you won't find in any Turkish history books. The film, titled Ararat, is predictably artless, an exploitive piece of important-with-a-capital-i movie making on the level of a made-for-TV Biblical film (is Charles Aznavour a thinly veiled Nicolas Roeg?).

This is the sort of film one might expect with Atom Egoyan's Ararat, the director's follow-up to his notably disappointing Felicia's Journey which covers his own personal ancestry. Unlike the fictitious Edward, Egoyan doesn't concern himself with the details of what happened, despite using a number of historical consultants for the particulars of the film-within-the-film. Rather, the director uses historical tragedy to probe how it relates to those directly and indirectly affected by it. For the central character Raffi (David Alpay), the events separate him from his late father, who was killed during an assassination attempt on a Turkish government official. While their literal separation was a residual of the events in question (made greater by Turkey's refusal to acknowledge it), Raffi's comfortable existence in Canada, nearly ninety years and two generations removed from the genocide, prevents him from comprehending the mentality of what his father was trying to do.

Of Ararat's abundant complexities, the juxtaposition of Raffi's quest in understanding his father with his step-sister Celia's (Marie-Josée Croze) search for justification of her father's death is one of the more surprising examinations. All of Ararat's conspiracy theories lie within her, and none of them directly relate to the genocide. Celia fluctuates between claiming that her step-mother Ani (Khanjian) either pushed him off a cliff or convinced him to do so. Celia assumes that in both Raffi and Ani's minds his father and her first husband's death symbolized honor, dying for a worthy cause, which in turn makes her father's death both shameful and insignificant by comparison.

Egoyan's Ararat never criticizes Edward's Ararat, despite the negative description I gave it above. Egoyan's even postulates a defense for Edward's, despite some disapproval from Ani, who readily admits she doesn't think in the way filmmakers do, in the various "poetic licenses" the film takes in setting and in relation to Gorky. As Raffi watches Ali (Elias Koteas) and Clarence (Bruce Greenwood) act the scene in which the Armenians refuse to cooperate with the Turks, the visualization of the actions forges the pathway to understanding his father's feelings. Through a later dialogue between Raffi and Ali, Egoyan shows us the purpose of a film like Edward's, and through his own film (and despite the problems surrounding Christopher Plummer's final realization), expresses why this isn't the sort of film he would ever make.

With: David Alpay, Christopher Plummer, Arsinée Khanjian, Charles Aznavour, Marie-Josée Croze, Elias Koteas, Eric Bogosian, Bruce Greenwood, Brent Carver, Simon Abkarian, Raoul Bhaneja
Screenplay: Atom Egoyan
Cinematography: Paul Sarossy
Music: Mychael Danna
Country of Origin: Canada/France
US Distributor: Miramax

Premiere: 20 May 2002 (Cannes Film Festival)
US Premiere: 12 November 2002 (AFI Film Festival)

Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress - Arsinée Khanjian, Best Supporting Actor - Elias Koteas, Best Music, Best Costume Design - Beth Pasternak (Genie Awards, Canada)

3 comments:

Jordany said...

Joe,
This is the best review of Ararat that I have read!
Brilliance.

Adoration seems to have Egoyan groupies declaring their love for him again.

Joe said...

Jordany,

I feel like there's so much at work here that I couldn't begin to do it justice.

Thank you though. I think Ararat is horribly overlooked in Egoyan's canon. It's pretty sad that doing a Metacritic/Rotten Tomatoes search for the film revealed so much about so-called "movie critics," many of which complained about there being "too much going on," almost suggesting that they would have rather seen the film Aznavour was making about the Armenian genocide than this one. Fitting.

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