Rendered in Egoyan's familiar emotionally cool style, Ararat is a film within a film that establishes a sense of time and place only to thoroughly upend it later on. That sense of flux serves to underscore Egoyan's message about the changeable, subjective nature of history.
Canadian-Armenian art historian Ani (played by Egoyan's wife Arsinee Khanjian) has just finished writing a book about Armenian artist Arshile Gorky (Simon Abkarian) and is asked to serve as consultant on a film (also called Ararat) about the genocide of Turkey's Armenian population during World War I. It is to be directed by Armenian director Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour). Conflict over how to incorporate Gorky into Saroyan's film is set against Ani's personal struggles with her own son, Raffi (David Alpay). The bright, intense 18-year-old has become romantically involved with the same unstable stepsister (Marie-Josee Croze), who blames Ani for her father's suicide.
The locus where all of these conflicts erupt, between mothers and sons, Armenians and Turks, is the surprisingly innocuous setting of a Toronto international customs desk where Raffi, who's working as an assistant on the Ararat set, is stopped after returning from Turkey. Raffi claims to have shot footage for the film his mother is consulting on, but David the customs agent (Christopher Plummer) is convinced Raffi carries drugs in his sealed film cans.
The two engage in a philosophical but tension-filled discussion -- first in the airport's bustling public area and then in its hidden interrogation rooms -- that clarifies some of the details of the Armenian Holocaust through scenes from Saroyan's Ararat, as well as Raffi's own painful relationship to that event as an ethnic Armenian.
Raffi is as obsessed with Turkey's vicious persecution of the Armenians as his mother, whose study of Gorky's painting "The Artist and His Mother" elucidates for her the bitter legacy of the Armenian experience.
"That painting is a sacred code," Ani tells the film's screenwriter Rouben (Eric Bogosian). For Ani, the portrait of a young Gorky and his mother before she died in the genocide is a way of wordlessly communicating the trauma of Armenia's past, which is also shown in harrowing scenes in the film-within-in-a-film of torture, rape and atrocity during the Turkish slaughter.
For Egoyan, who is of Armenian descent, Ararat is a very personal way of reviving a forgotten event. It is also about the lasting, unassailable gift of artworks, which contain more complexity and nuance than any written history. Egoyan traces a line from Gorky's painting to the film-within-a-film to his own film, which suggests that art keeps alive what people would prefer to forget.
On the set of the other Ararat, Raffi argues with an actor of Turkish descent named Ali (Elias Koteas), who is playing one of the Turkish army's most vicious killers. In a polite conversation nevertheless teeming with unspoken rage, hatred and misunderstanding, the pair debate what really happened to those 1.5 million Armenians all those years ago. It is a film about how easily some people can forget the kind of unpleasant things that will haunt other people for generations to come. The very act of making Ararat is a way of paying tribute to history's victims, but as Egoyan's complex film acknowledges, such revisitation of old traumas also creates fresh wounds.
History is easily molded, easily forgotten or revived, but Egoyan's Ararat affirms that it is as open to interpretation as the complicated behaviors of the people who live in it.
While some directors have risked trivializing history by turning traumatic events into tales of personal heroism as in Spielberg's Schindler's List, Egoyan's philosophical approach and use of many, small, interpersonal relationships manages to enlarge history instead. By weaving together the tensions between Ani and Raffi and between Ani and her stepdaughter, Egoyan makes viewers understand how deeply the reach of history can be, how its ripples can be felt throughout time in ways that can seem to have no direct connection to such events. And unlike a Spielberg, Egoyan protects himself from having to represent the real atrocities of history by using his film-within-a-film to depict them.
Some have criticized Ararat for its labyrinthine storylines and the multitude of ideas and characters the director bites off. Ararat is admittedly a far from perfect film, as seen in the scenes from the film-within-a-film, which have an uncomfortable staginess that often looks even creakier next to the more restrained present-day scenes. But the scope and complicating tendrils are part of Egoyan's point. In the real world, stories tend not to end but continue on to haunt future generations, and it is hard to sort out truth from opinion. Egoyan makes it just as difficult for his viewers to find satisfying answers, but that makes for far richer filmmaking.