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Review: Ararat (2002)

Ararat (2002)

Directed by: Atom Egoyan

Premise: A collection of intersecting stories associated with the production of a dramatic film about the Armenian genocide of World War I. An art scholar with expertise about painter Arshile Gorky advises on the film while her son copes with the family’s legacy.

What Works: The title of Ararat refers to the film-within-the-film, a drama about the 1915 defense of Van during the Armenian genocide. The approach is unique and allows the filmmakers to simultaneously make a movie about a contentious subject while also addressing the tension around it. Ararat primarily concerns an art scholar of Arminian descent, played by Arsinée Khanjian, who specializes in painter and genocide survivor Arshile Gorky. While lecturing on her latest book, she attracts the attention of filmmakers who are at work on a dramatic motion picture taking place during the Armenian genocide and she is brought on as a consultant. She in turn gets her son (David Alpay) a job as a production assistant and his on-set experiences lead him to travel to Turkey and document his ancestral lands; his story picks up upon his return as he is interrogated by a customs official (Christopher Plummer). These stories are crosscut with sequences of the dramatic movie. Ararat is an intelligent and ambitious film about the relationship between art and reality. The film is a kaleidoscope of different issues related to that theme. The academic consults on the historical accuracy of the film production and her ideas conflict with the screenwriter (Eric Bogosian) whose primary interest is telling a good story even if that means bending the facts. Ararat is also about the way artistic expression can be a testament to an individual or a group’s experience, especially a traumatic one, and there is some therapeutic value in making other people witness to that trauma. The film also links art and storytelling to meaning; spinning narratives out of our pain can give our suffering a sense of purpose but it might also be an arbitrary construction that distorts the actual event.

What Doesn’t: Ararat is about a movie-within-a-movie but the filmmaking does not clearly delineate between the reality within the dramatic film and the reality of these characters’ lives. That is central to the point of Ararat; the film is about the way life and art bleed into one another and how successful art can cause a historical moment or a personal feeling to echo long after it has ceased. However, Ararat is sometimes disorienting, especially early on in the picture. It takes a while for the viewer to make sense of what they are seeing and how these different storylines and the people within them relate to one another. The film’s exploration of the relationship between art and life is rather perfunctory. Ararat does enough for the purposes of the story but there is greater potential in the premise that the film never taps. As a movie about the Armenian genocide, Ararat is partly intended to inform the viewer about what happened and to keep the memory of this atrocity alive. In a few spots the movie suffers from dumping exposition on the viewer in a way that is clunky. This isn’t helped by the performance of David Alpay who is sometimes stilted. Like a lot of movies with intersecting storylines, Ararat suffers from too many characters and coincidences. There is a complex backstory involving the art scholar, her son, and ex-stepdaughter (Marie-Josée Croze) that is confusing and thematically adrift from the rest of the story. Virtually everyone in this film is just degree away from everyone else and this is contrived in places especially in the storyline involving a customs official played by Christopher Plummer. His links to everyone else in the movie strains the credibility of the story and creates other logical problems.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, short film, historical information, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Ararat is a flawed movie but it is also smart and generally effective at what it is trying to do. The movie is an ambitious exploration of the link between art and reality and even though its ambitions aren’t fully realized it does enough to merit consideration.

Episode: #646 (May 8, 2017)