The story takes place in modern-day Canada as art historian Ani (Arsinée Khanjian) is working as a consultant on Ararat a period movie about the Armenian genocide of 1915 that features an artist on whom she is an expert. Meanwhile conflicted over his Armenian heritage Ani's 18-year-old son Raffi (David Alpay) travels to Turkey to "find himself" and learn more about his people. He returns home with several 35mm film canisters that prompt customs official David (Christopher Plummer) to stop him at the airport on suspicion of smuggling drugs. Raffi insists he's been overseas filming footage for his mother's movie but David begins a long interrogation of the boy anyway--only to find his curiosity piqued as Raffi details not only what he's learned about the plight of the Armenian people but also his current problems with his mother and tumultuous love affair with his stepsister. As Raffi talks about his family David comes to terms with his own personal conflicts involving his gay son.
Outstanding acting by all even the unknowns is the best thing about this film and the film-within-the-film. Alpay (a 21-year-old pre-med student in real life) makes the most of the leading role in his feature film debut as an intense passionate old soul trying to learn who he is and where he comes from. Plummer's acting is solid as you'd expect but he offers no real revelations as the customs official. Others giving nice if smaller turns include Charles Aznavour as the movie-within-the-movie's well-known world-weary Armenian director and Elias Koteas as an impetuous half-Turkish actor whose attempts at political correctness fall short when he admits he disbelieves the Armenian genocide ever occurred--even though he's starring as the villain in a movie about it.
Director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) is of Armenian descent which explains his ambitious choice of what could be called obscure subject matter. Ultimately if he wanted to get the message out it might have been wiser to take the straightforward route and center the entire movie on the genocide and events leading up to it rather than taking this roundabout albeit more creative approach. Although the story is convoluted to Egoyan's credit it is surprisingly easy to follow despite switching back and forth from the present day to the movie-within-a-movie setting. The horrific depiction of rape and pillage is made all the more jarring when the actors in the movie-within-a-movie step off the set into "real" life although the technique doesn't always work. You end up caring less about what really happened to the Armenians because they do leave the horror behind them on the set. The scenes in which David interrogates Raffi are unrealistic to the point of being weird and add one more layer to the already complicated storyline. What customs official would a) care about the Armenian genocide of 1915 and b) take up his entire workday listening to some kid explain it? (If this accurately depicts how Canadian customs officials spend their time no wonder terrorists have escaped notice.)