Ararat keeps murder in mind

A remembrance of 1915 massacre teaches without touching

Apparently, Adolf Hitler was counting on our notoriously short historical memory. While implementing his own atrocities, Hitler reportedly replied to the concerns of underlings by saying, 'Who remembers the Armenian genocide?'

He was speaking of 1915, when virtually the entire Armenian population of eastern Turkey Ñ at least a million people Ñ was slaughtered by the Turks.

Atom Egoyan, the Armenian-Canadian director of 'The Sweet Hereafter,' 'Exotica' and other provocative films, does remember. His remembrance takes the form of 'Ararat,' an ambitious, difficult, not entirely successful drama with the 1915 massacre Ñ or the memory of it Ñ at its center.

Egoyan interconnects the lives of a number of characters who have their own connections to the genocide. In contemporary Toronto, a famous director named Saroyan (Charles Aznavour) is making a film on the subject and recruits the services of art historian Ani (Arsinee Khanjian), who is writing a book on Armenian painter Arshile Gorky. Ani's son Raffi (David Alpay), hired as a driver for the film, is in love with his angry stepsister Celia (Marie-Josee Croze), who believes her father was driven to suicide by Ani.

A framing device of sorts is provided by an episode at the Toronto airport. Raffi has just returned from shooting what he claims is location footage for Saroyan's film. He is questioned by a canny customs inspector (Christopher Plummer) on his last day in the job who believes the film cans may contain smuggled drugs.

Egoyan regulars Bruce Greenwood and Elias Koteas appear as actors in the film being shot Ñ Greenwood's character is American doctor Clarence Ussher (whose journals provided material for Egoyan's film) and Koteas' is a brutal Turkish officer.

Egoyan interweaves these characters and stories, moving forward and back in time and in and out of reality and Saroyan's film. He also introduces brief glimpses of the painter Gorky (played by Simon Abkarian) at work in New York in the '30s. In his typically elliptical fashion, the director doesn't so much approach the genocide as circle it cautiously, moving in and back and studying it through different filters.

In terms of acquainting us with a sadly neglected historical episode, 'Ararat' probably can be counted a success. We do learn something. But we don't really understand or feel as much as it seems we should.

Egoyan's treatment rapidly begins to seem more complicated than complex, with many of its complications simply inflating the film's sense of its own seriousness rather than expanding or deepening our sense of what it all means.

With many of the roles amounting to little more than mouthpieces, and others Ñ like Khanjian's Ani Ñ too grandly and pretentiously arty, the performances often seem either stilted or vague. Only Plummer (so good in the current 'Nicholas Nickleby') emerges as a completely real person apart from Egoyan's conceptions, so subtly commanding attention that his section virtually stands alone to dominate the rest of the film.

Though it grows from unmistakably strong feelings, 'Ararat' results in oddly muted feelings. Egoyan informs you about this event that clearly means so much to him, then he proceeds to distance you from it with fusty dramatics.