And that's one reason it works: Its impact sneaks up on you, as Egoyan's thoughtful sowing of detail yields a harvest that gradually grows as impressive as the dormant volcano from which the film takes its name.
Though set in contemporary Toronto, Ararat opens in New York circa 1934 and shuttles between those settings and one even more historically distant: the genocidal 1915 campaign wherein the Turkish army wiped out eastern Turkey's entire population of Armenians. One real-life survivor of the massacre was Arshile Gorky, who became a painter in Depression-era New York. In Ararat, a fictional Gorky scholar named Ani (Arsinée Khanijian) is hired as a consultant on a film about the genocide, which is being shot by a renowned French director named Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour), who is in turn making it to honor his Armenian mother, another survivor.
Meanwhile, Ani's son, Raffi (David Alpay), is somewhat scandalously in love with his stepsister, Zoe -- whose father was Ani's most recent lover, and who died under suspect circumstances. Zoe blames her dad's demise on Ani, whom she loathes. Raffi's own father, meanwhile, was either a freedom fighter (Raffi's interpretation) or a terrorist (most everyone else's) who years before died trying to assassinate a Turkish diplomat. The cast also includes Christopher Plummer as an airport customs officer preparing for retirement whose connection to the others becomes clear halfway through the time-jumping storyline.
Egoyan announces his main theme subtly but immediately: We see Gorky basing his latest painting on a photo of himself as a boy with his mother, in their native land -- interpreting the past, the historical record, to suit his artistic needs. That idea is amplified in Saroyan's film-within-a-film, also titled Ararat, a lushly scored but necessarily brutal epic focusing on Clarence Ussher, an American Christian missionary doctor serving in an Armenian village. (Egoyan credits Ussher's real-life journal as his source material.) Preparing his film, Saroyan goes so far as to choose as a scenic backdrop a painting that relocates distant Mount Ararat -- the Armenians' spiritual totem -- to a place visible from his cinematic village. He excuses this fabrication as "poetic license."
Egoyan himself blurs some boundaries, as characters from what seem to be a flashback to Turkey appear on the set of Saroyan's movie. And Raffi has an argument about history with an actor named Ali (Elias Koteas) portraying a murderous Turkish general.
But all this is more than postmodern ledgerdemain. Far from simply commenting on the vagaries of re-creating history, Egoyan explores everything from the malleability of human memory to our very need for the past: Raffi's commitment to a history he knows third-hand is just as powerful as Ali's belief that the past no longer matters. In one scene, Ani wanders onto the film's set and the actor playing Ussher ("Martin," played by Bruce Greenwood) upbraids her for intruding, as though she'd trespassed on a real wartime medical ward. Our memory of history, Egoyan suggests, is as important as history, because it creates the meaning by which we live our lives.
It's a debatable proposition, and many would argue that Saroyan's relocation of Mount Ararat is most emphatically not OK, poetically or otherwise. But Saroyan, in his Continental self-assurance, is serenely confident of himself and of some greater dramatic truth -- a good axis around which the other characters' points of view can revolve.
Egoyan, meanwhile, handles both his camera and his actors with an almost clinical air. Plummer is taciturn, the vessel for a bitterness his character doesn't seem to think he quite deserves. Aznavour is wise, mildly imperious, charmingly abstracted. The beautiful Khanijian (Egoyan's wife and frequent star) gives a quietly passionate performance as Ani, while Alpay, all big liquid eyes, plays Raffi as a smart if naïve kid who's strong enough not to sell his ideals short, even though they might be misguided after all.
Egoyan doesn't resolve such paradoxes, but that's one of the things that makes Ararat interesting. If it's more than the literary exercise it sometimes feels like, it's because Egoyan has a lot invested: His film is deeply felt, and ultimately deeply moving. In a smartly constructed final sequence that parallels the premiere of Saroyan's film with an interrogation of Raffi by Plummer's cop, he shows characters not fighting over the past so much as struggling to make it their own. * * *