written and directed by Atom Egoyan opens Nov. 27 at Metro
ATOM EGOYAN IS at once the ideal director to make a movie about the Turkish slaughter of a million-plus Armenians in 1915, and the worst. He's Armenian-Canadian, so he knows the seasoned grief of the forgotten genocide—as the film notes, Turkey denies the Armenian holocaust to this day.
But holocausts call for straightforward storytelling, and Egoyan's story lines ramify like ice tendrils in a windowpane—tendrils that self-consciously mock and mimic each other. In his best movie, The Sweet Hereafter, the various characters' tales gain force as they converge on a central tragedy, a school bus plunging into a lake. Egoyan has more trouble adapting this method to the vaster tragedy of his people.
See if you can follow the basic story setup: Raffi (fiery-eyed David Alpay) is the young son of Ani (wise-eyed Arsin饠Khanjian), an expert on Armenian painter, holocaust survivor, and suicide Arshile Gorky. Ani had two husbands—one, a martyr (or terrorist, but Egoyan oddly avoids exploring this ambiguity), died trying to kill a Turk. The second husband died after she dumped him. This guy's daughter Celia (crazy-bedroom-eyed Marie-Jos饠Croze) thinks it was suicide and Ani's fault, and keeps heckling Ani at public lectures to draw parallels between Ani's life and her work on Gorky. Celia is a vivid character—she's also madly screwing her stepbrother Raffi—but really she's just an abstraction, an excuse to insert commentary on Gorky and his holocaust.
Another abstract connection arises: a director of Spielbergian stature (sad-eyed Charles Aznavour), who's making an epic about the genocide, decides to include Gorky as a character, and hires Ani to advise him and his producer (Eric Bogosian in an utterly superfluous role transparently included, like Celia, to wring more historical info out of Ani). Ani gets Raffi a gofer job on the film.
Trying to return from Turkey with footage of Mount Ararat (a big Armenian symbol), Raffi gets interrogated by a kindly customs inspector (Christopher Plummer) who thinks his film cans are full of heroin. Raffi says if he opens the cans, it'll expose the film. Can't the guy just take it on faith that it is what he says it is?
By a striking coincidence, the customs guy's estranged gay son's (Brent Carver) half-Turkish boyfriend (Elias Koteas) gets the part of the Turkish mass-murderer general in the movie.
OK, that's the movie; but it's incidental to the movie-within-the-movie, the historical epic about the genocide. In the scariest sequence, brides are stripped, forced to do the traditional circle dance, doused with kerosene, and torched. The epic focuses on the compound defended by American doctor Clarence Ussher (Bruce Greenwood), whose actual diaries provide much of the dialogue, which makes it righteously accurate and wooden.
Incredibly, Egoyan keeps everything intelligible, and this smart film holds your interest throughout. There's a difference between intelli- gible and coherent, though. The connections between the various bits are arbitrary, weakening the realistic impact of each character. Raffi's standoff with the customs guy is pseudophilosophical jive. When the genocide scenes pan back and become a movie set, it puts quotes around the horror. And way too many scenes come off as bald exposition. When Raffi and the epic's director try to talk the half-Turkish actor out of his ignorant belief that the genocide wasn't all that bad, it is too transparently the director talking straight to us. The many ambiguities are half-baked or less, and the what-is-reality theme seems sophomoric up against a reality so resonant and unambiguous. The point and poignance of The Sweet Hereafter was the validity of each character's view of the tragedy and the way individuals exist in a community. There are no real individuals or community in Ararat, just ideas and a vigorous history lesson.