WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Ararat is probably the film that Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan envisions as the personal masterwork of his career. And there's no denying that it's an obviously heartfelt labor of love—on the part of all involved. The subject matter is quite personal and sensitive: Ararat pays emotional respect to Egoyan's Armenian roots. Throughout his life—and noticeable through his film career—Egoyan has harbored a potent melancholy and outrage for the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Turkish government before and during World War I. Virtually lost in history, the slaughter is often internationally denied, particularly when compared with the Jewish Holocaust of World War II.
But what's to be made of the countless stories of the survivors? Egoyan focuses on two such stories in his film—those of the painter Arshile Gorky and the American missionary Clarence Ussher. But rather than delve solely into the past to tell their stories—a tactic that would probably have given this film more power—Egoyan chooses the somewhat distancing method of presenting interweaving settings and storylines. And all will take place under the metaphorical and literal shadow of the titular Mount Ararat.
The idealistic center of the film is Raffi (David Alpay), of Armenian descent and obviously patterned on Egoyan himself. He's the son of a Gorky historian (Ani, played by Arsinee Khanjian) and production assistant on a film called Ararat, being directed by the Canadian filmmaker Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour), also patterned on Egoyan. Raffi finds himself fervently immersed in his job on the film, traveling to his ancestral lands, recording heaps of amateur film, and probing for historical truth. Meanwhile, the film within a film is unfolding before us, shedding light on the passions of the present-day characters but also throwing the film into a narrative jumble, as characters take on dual roles as people and as actors in Saroyan's film. Even more confusing, Raffi's tale is told in flashback, as he recounts his endeavors to suspicious customs agent David (Christopher Plummer).
There's too much going on in Egoyan's Ararat. I found myself wishing that the film would simply calm down and focus on maybe two or three essential stories. But in its earnest attempt to portray the physical plight of the Armenians as well as the emotional plight of their ancestors, the film goes for broke by attempting about a dozen interweaving subplots. I found it difficult to find the center of the film and to find a character with whom to identify.
Still, the obvious passion for this project shines through, and if you invest yourself in the history and the attendant emotion, this film will bowl you over. As you'll learn in the director's commentary, every aspect of this film, down to the tiniest detail, has symbolic or cultural or historical meaning. Ararat is a film bursting with sorrowful obsession, but unfortunately its focus is too tight—it has sacrificed narrative power in favor of the earnestness of details.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Miramax presents Ararat in a good anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. First, I'll mention what's great about it. The detail is exemplary, reaching into backgrounds. The print itself is quite clean, with only minor flaws and flecks. The colors, in service of Paul Sarossy's interesting photography, appear accurate, if a tad washed out.
Now, the unfortunate. I noticed some edge enhancement in the form of ringing on hard edges. Artifacting, particularly blocking, is distracting—interestingly, mostly at the split-second of scene transitions. And I noticed minor instances of mosquito noise.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc offers three sound options: a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, and a DTS 5.1 mix. The 2.0 track is a very limited affair, sounding rooted at the center. Switching to one of the 5.1 mixes really opens up this mix, liberally placing sound elements into the rears and oomphing up the low end. A comparison of the two 5.1 mixes gives a definite advantage to the DTS mix, which is much tighter and more powerful in the bass department. Do a quick switch during a battle scene to hear the obvious difference.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
This thorough 2-disc Ararat set contains a plethora of enticing extras that enrich the experience of the film. Let's start with Disc 1, on which you'll find a nonstop Audio Commentary by Atom Egoyan. He starts immediately by saying that he's going to take a very particular route through this scene-specific track—and that is the route of symbolism, and how the symbols of the film play into its themes. This is definitely the kind of commentary that gives you a whole new appreciation for the work: Egoyan essentially takes you out of the film's flowing narrative and focuses on the details. At the same time, the commentary is a telling narrative in that you get the idea that perhaps Egoyan paid too much attention to the details and not enough attention to surface essentials such as structure and pace. Nevertheless, Egoyan is extremely well spoken and is obviously close to his film.
Over on Disc 2, you get a long menu of supplemental material. First up is Arsinee Khanjian on Ararat, a 2-minute interview piece with the actress (also the director's wife) in which she speaks of her emotional experiences on the set.
Portrait of Arshile is available with or without commentary by Atom Egoyan. It is a 5-minute short film that the director was commissioned to make in 1995. It is his meditation of the painting Portrait of the Artist and His Mother, a piece that features prominently in Ararat. (Arshile is the real name of the director's son.)
Historical Information gives you 4 minutes of running text about the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks.
Next is The Making of Ararat, a 29-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. From the beginning, the production is heralded as an emotional journey," and the dedication of the filmmakers is palpable. We get interview snippets from Atom Egoyan, producer Robert Lantos, co-producer Sandra Cunnigham, composer Mychael Danna, director of photography Paul Sarossy, editor Susan Shipton, sound designer Steve Munro, costume designer Beth Pasternak, production designed Philip Barker, and nearly all of them touch on the deeply personal nature of the project. I was impressed by the cast and crew involvement in this piece, but it had a haphazard feel, as if it was hastily put together and lacked structure. And it peters out into a lengthy session of back-patting.
Raffi's Video Footage is a 9-minute compilation of Raffi's digital footage, captured by Hrair Hawk Khatcherian. Hrair provides running commentary.
Next is the Theatrical Trailer.
Deleted Scenes presents 18 minutes of deleted footage, many of which are extensions of existing scenes. You can view the scenes with or without Egoyan commentary.
You also get a series of Interviews with Atom Egoyan , David Alpay (Raffi), Bruce Greenwood (Clarence Ussher/Martin), Eric Bogosian (Rouben), Christopher Plummer (David), Charles Aznavour (Edward), Marie-Josee Croze (Celia), and Robert Lantos (producer). The interviews total about 10 minutes. The Egoyan and Lantos segments tend to repeat stuff we've heard on other parts of the disc, but it's especially nice here to listen to the cast members.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Ararat is a film of great passion, but its narrative structure distances you from the emotion you should feel. The 2-disc DVD set is intense and thorough and is a must for Egoyan fans.