So much of Atom Egoyan’s work is anchored in human perception and its variances both tiny and large. The way we experience things, the way we interpret things and, sometimes most importantly, the way we remember things infect his work like a virus. For Egoyan, the dirty little secrets that comprise life, and how they’re kept, are often more significant than everything else put together. It’s impossible to look at Egoyan’s films and consider them impersonal, but with Ararat, an epic (for lack of a better word) focusing on the early 20th century Armenian genocide in Turkey and based on his own heritage, Canada’s favorite filmmaking son has made what might be his most personal movie. But that’s his, not ours.
The history contained in Ararat is distributed through several channels, moving in and out of a straight timeline in ways that are typical of the Egoyan canon. Raffi (David Alpay), a twentyish stand-in for the director, has wondered all his life what caused his father to give his life for the Armenian cause, dying in an assassination attempt on a Turkish ambassador. When his art history-professor mother (played by Egoyan’s wife, Arsinée Khanjian), who has written a book on famed Armenian painter Arshile Gorky, becomes a consultant on a movie that turns out to be the type of Armenian history epic that James Cameron might have made, Raffi is hired as a production assistant, a job that opens his eyes to the torture of his ancestors. At the same time that he’s processing this new understanding of his past, Raffi is sleeping with his French-Canadian stepsister (Marie-Josée Croze), a willful girl who blames her father’s suicide on Raffi’s mother, and is caught in the middle of an emotional death match of wits between the two women.
The film-within-a-film and the production around it are contained in yet another plot layer, in which Raffi runs off to his ancestral land in Turkey to see the landscape for himself, and to imagine, with the help of what he’s seen re-created on a soundstage, the culture that once thrived there. On his way back into Toronto, Raffi is stopped at customs by a security agent named David (Christopher Plummer) working his final shift before retirement. He’s suspicious of Raffi for a number of reasons: the young man’s dead father, pegged in a government file as a terrorist; his relationship with his stepsister, who has been harassing his mother; and especially the video camera and film canisters in his knapsack. As Armenia’s past swirls around them in a tiny airport office, David and Raffi have a showdown over the contents of the canisters. Raffi refuses to believe that the cameraman he met in Turkey who packed them may have stuffed them with drugs. David refuses to believe that he didn’t.
It’s a somewhat tacky framing device, a low choice for a director who so often finds new ways to convey old feelings. Plummer’s performance seems to say that there’s more going on inside David than meets the eye, but we get only a few clues as to what might lie beyond the easy answer of karmic repentance for his own personal life.
But ignoring that — a courtesy Egoyan probably deserves — what this all boils down to is the infinitesimal shadings of story, a central tenet of the subtextual narrative that travels through all of Egoyan’s films. He puts words in Raffi’s mouth that perfectly encapsulate what has long been his own philosophy. When David accuses Raffi of being lost and confused over his past, both personal and cultural, Raffi replies that he didn’t lose the meaning of what happened. “It’s more like the meaning of things changed,” he says to his interrogator.
Ararat reverberates with Egoyan’s anguish over what happened to his people, a visual litany of suffering and cruelty, but while this is his largest-scale effort at moviemaking to date, when the particulars of the story are stripped away what remains is the concept and ever-changing value of truth in memory and interpretation.
For all its good intentions, though, Ararat is not quite the masterpiece that Egoyan wants it to be. It’s almost too personal, as if there are additional secrets contained within that are not visible to anybody who has not lived through the events and their aftershock that he has put up on the screen.
Though his themes don’t work quite as well on a large scale as they do on a small one, they’re what make Ararat more than just a director’s indulgence of his own preoccupations. And they’re what make this, like all the others, an Egoyan movie worth watching.
Opens Wednesday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.