Our great dreams consume us, torment us until we follow them, and if we're good enough they lead us to whatever heights of accomplishment we will make in our lives. The dream - the nightmare, really - of dealing with the great massacre of ethnic Armenians by the Turks in 1915, and the hope of calling the world's attention to it, has been Atom Egoyan's great dream as a filmmaker. Best known for his powerful, wrenchingly sad 1997 film "The Sweet Hereafter," about the shock and aftershocks of a small-town tragedy when a schoolbus plunges into a lake one winter day, Egoyan has now written and directed "Ararat," a film that explores the events of 1915 in the Armenian region of northeastern Turkey, and the echoes of the massacre that can be heard even today.
Unfortunately, instead of dealing with it head-on, he has wrapped it into a group of contemporary stories that keep taking us farther from the original tragedy. First there's a movie within the movie, a period drama about the massacre, which we see as it is being shot on a sound stage in Toronto; and then a second story about an art historian who's a consultant to the production because the Armenian painter Arshile Gorky was a survivor; and then the story of Gorky himself; and then the story of the historian's young son, who travels to contemporary Turkey to shoot new footage for the film; and then the story of the Canadian customs inspector who stops him as he comes back because of the film cans he's carrying.
They're all interconnected, and perhaps each of them would be strong enough to sustain its own film; certainly the massacre itself is one of the great crimes in history. But Egoyan insists on treating each story equally, giving time and energy to each, and so the whole is weakened by the need to weave all of them together. The power is choked off by that glut of material.
Egoyan is incapable of shooting a bad-looking frame of film, and he is a marvelous director of actors; so "Ararat" is always fascinating, sometimes beautiful, occasionally horrifying as we see his scenes play out. In the historical film, the director is played by the French singer/actor Charles Aznavour, who is himself of Armenian descent; the actor playing the Turkish commander Jevdet Bey is Elias Koteas, who is mesmerizing to see and listen to. He commands the screen in every scene. (Egoyan has also, needlessly, linked Koteas's 'real' character in the film - an out-of-work actor named Ali, with the customs inspector's story because he is the lover of the inspector's son.)
The inspector is played by Christopher Plummer, whose theatre mannerisms (careful enunciation, self-conscious posing) are a bit off-putting at the start, but who slowly lets go and comes to dominate the film. The art historian is the beautiful and subtle actress Arsinée Khanjian (Egoyan's wife), and the other roles are well played also. I'm sure there is a great film lurking somewhere inside this movie, but Egoyan's melodramatic complexities keep us from responding to it.