Ararat (2002): Armenian Drama from Atom Egoyan

Born in Egypt, the Canadian-based director Atom Egoyan is of Armenian descent, which should make him the ideal person to make “Ararat,” a chronicle of the 1915 massacre that few Americans (and Westerners in general) know about, a genocide of about one million Armenian by the Turks that threatens disappear into the dust of history.

The hideous question, posed by Hitler himself, is quoted in the film as a motto: “Who now remembers the extermination of the Armenian?  In theory, then, “Ararat,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Fest and later served as opening night of the Toronto Film Fest, is more than welcome.
But the film is dissatisfying and frustrating on many different levels. We often charge American films of being too simplistic and one-dimensional, but “Ararat” suffers from the opposite problem: It’s too multi-layered, with too many characters, and too many subplots, resulting in a diffuse, sprawling, and amorphous picture.
“Ararat” is not meant to be an epic historical account of the tragedy, though one subplot involves the making of a movie about the event, directed by Armenain-French Charles Aznavour (better known as a singer).
More than anything else, “Ararat” is an intimae family melodrama, centering on the relationship between Raffi (David Alpay), a rebellious youth and his mother (played by Arsinee Khanjian (Egoyan’s wife), who collects and preserves the art of Arshile Gorky, a painter who fled Armenia to the U.S.
Rather implausibly, Raffi is arrested at the airport by a homophobic customs officer named David (Christopher Plummer, miscast), who becomes curious about the contents of the film tapes and videotapes that the boy is carrying. During the investigation, we learn that David cannot come to terms with the homosexuality of his son (Brent Carver). (In a role reversal, Raffi shows greater maturity and understanding of the subject and helps cure David of his homophobia). It just happens that the lover (Elias Koteas) of the gay son works on the aforementioned film with Raffi, playing a Turkish officer.
Visually, the movie is incoherent: The naturalistic settings of the drama are incongruent with the stylized settings of the movie-within-movie.
Egoyan has dealt with issues of history and memory and with gay characters before in a more effective way.   But here, the family melodrama of a suffering but domineering mother and misunderstood son, and the extraneous bond between Raffi and David, diffuse the broader, more significant political issues.
At the end of “Ararat,” contrary to the director’s intent, you feel confused and not particularly well informed about the massacre, because the movie is trying to do too much within the frame of a two-hour feature. Moreover, there’s nothing new, provocative, or controversial about Egoyan’s view of the tragedy, including the portrayal of Turkish officials and their atrocities.
In other words, “Ararat” is a personal but quite disappointing film, whose main subject perhaps should have been more touching and effective if it were dealt with in a documentary grounded in fact rather than contrived melodrama.