- The Washington Times - Friday, November 29, 2002

"Ararat" could become a case study in narrative sprawl for screenwriting classes, but it eludes coherence, gratification or respect as a self-contained movie with serious intentions. Most of the intentions reflect the Armenian heritage of writer-director Atom Egoyan, Canada's favorite esoteric filmmaker, perhaps best known for his 1997 adaptation of the stealthily malicious Russell Banks novel "The Sweet Hereafter."
Mr. Egoyan usually is wedded to narrow and cerebral frameworks. He attempts an expansive historical-ethnic-psychological canvas with "Ararat." Lacking practice with epic formats, he settles for a scattered, bewildering mosaic of subplots and episodes.
The scenario ranges from embittered family estrangements in the Canadian present to re-enactments of warfare and atrocity in Asia minor, circa 1915, with Armenian partisans battling a Turkish warlord and then Armenian refugees at the mercy of the same triumphant warlord's sadism and genocidal proclivities.
Ostensibly, the time frames are linked by a movie epic that is re-enacting the same Turkish-Armenian struggle that Mr. Egoyan strives to incorporate. So the "fictional" movie-within-the-movie and his own movie-within-the-movie are blurred, a device that proves burdensome.
Two actors, Bruce Greenwood and Elias Koteas, portray historical characters during the war scenes and also the actors who have been cast in those roles. Some episodes deal with the shooting of the film, supposedly written by an American of Armenian extraction named Rouben (Eric Bogosian) and directed by a Frenchman of Armenian extraction named Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour).
The painter Arshile Gorky (Simon Abkarian) appears as an Armenian partisan fighter, an emigre artist in New York City at a later date and a ghostly presence at the Toronto premiere of the Saroyan epic, which also coincides with a Gorky art exhibit. A Gorky canvas of his mother looms large. From time to time so does the filmmaker's French-Armenian spouse, Arsinee Khanjian, cast as an art scholar and museum curator named Ani, whose maternal nature seems to have been submerged by burning ambition.
She has written a tome called "Enigma and Nostalgia." It's a plausible subtitle for "Ararat," along with "Where Are We?" or "Who Goes There?" or "What Gives?"
Ani has mothered children from different mates, one of whom seems to have vanished without a trace. There is a sultry and hostile daughter named Celia (Marie-Josee Croze, a considerable naked distraction in one episode) and a compliant but foolhardy son named Raffi (David Alpay). The youths are introduced as lovers in a fairly explicit sex scene. Celia later goes bonkers and sabotages the museum to spite mom. Raffi, evidently employed as a driver during the movie production, also has made some kind of expedition to the region of Mount Ararat while carrying a digital camera. He is grilled in an extended subplot by a customs inspector named David (Christopher Plummer).
Raffi, it seems, is attempting to re-enter Canada with a cargo of film cans that David considers suspicious. Nearing retirement, the inspector interrogates the young man all day before satisfying his curiosity.
Episodes in the present, the distant past and the immediate past are scrambled in ways that may seem necessary to Mr. Egoyan but remain muddled to onlookers.
The faraway episodes are weakened by his obvious inexperience with large-scale historical evocation and war spectacle. He even goes absentminded as a purveyor of simulated atrocity footage. Having shown the Turks molesting a group of shrieking and naked refugees, he doubles back later to make sure he doesn't leave out the rape that showcases a helpless pregnant victim.
Quite a bit of mental cruelty piles up in the contemporary domestic scenes, too, but the links between past and present are tenuous at best. I'm not sure if the Turks should take the rap for the fact that Celia hates her mother, Raffi and Celia have a semi-incestuous thing going and Mr. Plummer's character finds it difficult to accept the homosexuality of his only son, who has fathered a son of his own somewhere along the way.
Mr. Egoyan certainly has a lot on his plate far too much to make sense of the overlapping themes, characters, time frames and obessions.

*1/2
TITLE: "Ararat"
RATING: R (Episodes of graphic violence, torture and rape during depictions of a wartime massacre; occasional profanity and sexual candor, including an interlude of simulated intercourse; occasional nudity)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Atom Egoyan.
RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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