Being of the minority who did not worship Schindler's List (vital message, tedious movie), it's easy to feel skeptical of the preachy delivery of Ararat, which concerns not the Jewish holocaust but the Armenian one, its genocidal forebear of 1915-1918. Armenian-Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan has -- like Spielberg with Schindler -- crafted an important and ambitious film, but similarly, the experience is strangely cold and detached, in this case because Egoyan too often substitutes ham-handed lecturing for passion. The resulting project matters much and should be seen, but how much it'll be felt depends on your specific level of patience for a director who presumes audience comprehension to be at about a fourth-grade level (at least he's a shoo-in for Hollywood).
Our primary protagonist here is Raffi (newcomer David Alpay), a young Armenian-Canadian filmmaker who screws his stepsister, Celia (Marie-Josée Croze), when he's not struggling to keep her from publicly attacking and humiliating his mother, Ani (Egoyan's wife, Arsinée Khanjian). The girl wants to ruin Ani's life not because the elder's art-history lectures are trite -- boy, are they! -- but because Celia believes that her father's premature death is Ani's fault. It's that kind of family.
Sorrow and recovery are the main thrusts of Ararat, stuffed into every moment to the point of suffocation, but clearly this is Egoyan's goal. To his credit, he strives hard to layer his project with history and humanity, which greatly enhances the experience when his leaden themes (mainly: "Torture is bad") and absurdly earnest direction of actors threaten to sink things. Ani is employed as historical adviser for a film about the systematic elimination of Armenians by the Turks. Moving sometimes dully but occasionally brilliantly between the period setting, the movie sets, and modern life, Egoyan weaves together a rotten past, a bewildered present, and a truly hopeful future.
Egoyan, who put Ian Holm in Sweet Hereafter and Sarah Polley in Exotica, knows how to cast a great actor. Here, we get Elias Koteas playing both a Turkish villain and a modern, part-Turkish actor with attitude. Equally impressive is Christopher Plummer as a cucumber-cool customs officer.
Unfortunately, the director's efforts to link the widely denied holocaust with what seems to be a semi-autobiographical portrait tend to be a bit iffy, and in the lead, young Alpay lacks the spectrum of emotion to convey Egoyan's heavy words.