Ararat

History demands honesty. While it's difficult to reconcile that fact with the recognition that events start to rewrite themselves even as they unfold, trying to bring honesty to fictionalized accounts is doubly difficult. Portraying the genocide Turkey exacted on its Armenian citizens presents more complications yet: Though the events were well documented, and bitterly remembered by the survivors and their descendants, the Turkish government continues to deny the mass executions and deportations that killed approximately one million Armenians between 1915 and 1918. A director of Armenian descent, Atom Egoyan no doubt has a keen awareness of the anxieties attendant to portraying the genocide. His familiar approach mostly serves these anxieties well in Ararat, a film as much about the difficulty of portraying history as it is about the history it portrays. Egoyan's Ararat hovers around the filming of another fictional movie called Ararat, a more conventional exercise in costume history directed by Charles Aznavour (a French icon who shares Egoyan's Armenian heritage). Tweaking but never condemning Aznavour's Hollywood-derived approach, Egoyan allows the many characters whose lives touch the film to illustrate its shortcomings. A specialist in the work of painter and genocide survivor Arshile Gorky, Arsinée Khanjian plays an art historian and advisor to Aznavour's film whose own personal history seems as subject to revisionist accounts as the event that sent Gorky into exile. Khanjian's son (impressive newcomer David Alpay) is shown taking up with his embittered stepsister (Marie-Josée Croze), then later bargaining with customs agent Christopher Plummer over the fate of several film canisters that might contain footage of the Armenian countryside, or possibly more questionable substances. Though typically engaging, Ararat occasionally suffers from what's previously been a virtue in Egoyan's filmmaking. His distancing techniques, rather than sharpening his ability to deal with a subject that lends itself to high emotion (as they did with the catastrophes at the center of Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter), sometimes just seem distancing. Maybe the idea is to hedge against the potential for too little objectivity when addressing so personal a subject, but only during the film's closing segments, when Egoyan ventures closer than arm's length, does Ararat rise to the standard of his best work. At that point, he once again finds grace in the midst of tragedy, illustrating that if the past remains unknowable, its ghosts alone make it real.

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