directed by Atom Egoyan
(Miramax, 2002)

It would be hard to imagine a more conflicted landscape than Ararat, Canadian director Atom Egoyan's examination of the alleged massacre of more than a million Armenians in eastern Turkey in 1915.

At the center of the conflict is Ani (Arsinee Khanjian), a modern-day art professor at a Canadian university who's just completed a book on Armenian artist Arshile Gorky (Simon Abkarian), whose portrait of himself and his mother -- painted after her death in the massacre -- has become a near-religious icon for the victims' descendants.

Just as conflicted is Ani's son, Raffi (David Alpay), who's caught in a crossfire between Ani and his stepsister, Celia (Marie-Josee Croze), who blames Ani for the death of her father, and with whom Raffi is having a clearly consummated relationship.

The conflicts are further complicated by the arrival of famous director Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour), who's making a film about the massacre and decides to hire Ani as a consultant. Ani takes the job, despite her concerns about Saroyan taking liberties with history: His set includes a view of Mount Ararat, which would not have been visible from the village where Ani's forebears were slain.

But wait -- as Ron Popeil likes to say -- there's still more.

To reveal this complicated mosaic, Egoyan works primarily in flashback. We learn much of the story from Raffi, who is explaining it to David (Christopher Plummer), a customs official he encounters when he re-enters the country after traveling to Turkey to shoot some background footage for the film. (David, by the way, is suffering from his own family conflict: He can't accept his son's gay relationship with Ali, the actor portraying the Turkish official in charge of the massacre.)

So it slowly becomes clear what we're dealing with here: a many-pronged meditation on the questions "What do you believe?" and "Why do you believe it?"

To further complicate things, Egoyan lets form follow function. He dramatizes the events leading to the 1915 massacre, but you're never entirely sure -- at least until Saroyan yells "cut" -- if you're seeing history or the director's re-creation of it. And then there are the recurring flashbacks to Gorky's New York studio, where the artist finishes -- then unfinishes -- the portrait that Ani holds in so much esteem (and which is guarded, by the way, by the customs officer's son, Philip).

And have I mentioned that Ararat is shot in at least three languages -- in the shadow of Mount Ararat, where, legend has it, Noah brought to rest his ark in a world cleansed of sin?

Should you be willing to navigate all these crosscurrents, however, you will be richly rewarded. Ararat is rich in history, rich in art, rich in human conflict. The soundtrack -- much of it the work of Armenian musicians -- soars; the characters are memorable, if not warm and fuzzy; and the look is breathtaking, constantly pitting the cold, squeaky clean world of Canadian bureaucracy against the lush texture of Old World village life.

Ultimately, of course, the central conflict cannot be resolved: Did the Turkish government carry out an act of genocide against its Armenian population in 1915? To this day, the Turkish government denies it, but a wealth of evidence, cited by Egoyan in the closing credits, argues otherwise.

Yet Egoyan is after bigger fish: Once you've come to believe something like this, he asks, how do you live with it? How do you put it in perspective, in your life and in the lives of those around you?

Egoyan never says. Only Ararat will tell.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 13 December 2003

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