Ararat (Miramax)

The Kid Stays in the Picture (Warner Bros.)

Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan's most recent feature, Ararat, didn't tarry long on U.S. screens when it opened last year. Unlike most of his films, which have received ample praise, this one drew mostly unkind reviews, which was pretty much the death-knell for an artist whose standoffish, puzzle-like work always needs whatever critical boost it can get. Combine that with the movie's subject matter - a genocide that took place almost a century ago in a part of the world most of us barely know exists - and moviegoers didn't exactly flock out to see this one.

Unfortunately, the critics were wrong.

First, the movie: Egoyan, who is of Armenian descent, has long wanted to tell the story of the Armenian genocide - during which over 1 million people living in Turkey were systematically starved, massacred, and exiled. Although it took place long before WWII, this tragedy isn't often mentioned in schoolbooks; the mass extermination of Jews has overshadowed it, even though some claim that Hitler was partly inspired or emboldened by what Turkish troops had done.

Rather than turn this story into a straight historical drama, Ararat approaches it from multiple angles. There is a film within the film, in which an aging director is producing the kind of epic Steven Spielberg might have made had he been Armenian instead of Jewish; full of swelling music and button-pushing emotional material, it uses eyewitness accounts of a specific massacre to tell part of the story.

But Egoyan is equally interested in the people around this production. A consultant on the film is an expert in the life of Arshile Gorky, the famous painter who as a child witnessed the massacre. The consultant, in turn, has an ex-husband who was killed trying to assassinate a Turkish official, and another lover who died under undisclosed circumstances; those two men fathered a boy and (by another woman) a girl who have, years later, become romantically involved. On the day during which much of the film takes place, the boy finds himself being interrogated by a customs official (Christopher Plummer) whose son is the lover of one of the film's actors.

Confused? So were many critics. Roger Ebert called it "too much, too heavily layered, too needlessly difficult, too opaque." But there are good reasons for the heavy layering that should be discernible to any viewer familiar (as Ebert is) with the director's aesthetic habits. The improbable connections between the characters are Egoyan's stock in trade, a device that's fundamental to most of his work. What's more, the individual stories have elements that resonate meaningfully with each other. For example, the film barely touches on the end of Gorky's life, but the character who does allude to his suicide is trying to get to the bottom of her own father's death; the complicated losses suffered by the fictional man combine with what we know of the real painter, and do more to evoke Gorky's tragedy than the film has time to do head-on.

Similarly, the movie-within-a-movie device is essential for a filmmaker whose non-mainstream status would never permit him the budget to shoot a straight-up historical epic, with all the costumes, huge sets, and so on that such a production requires. Here, he can depict some of the history in an emotionally compelling way without having to convince us we're really looking at a 1915 Turkish military operation. Never mind that such a straightforward film would be out of keeping with the director's style, like asking Bruce Springsteen to make a hip-hop record.

Ebert's complaint that the film is "difficult" doesn't really hold up, either. Although it takes some time for the viewer to determine who's who and how they're related, it doesn't take an undue amount of effort; any attentive viewer can follow the tendrils as far as they are meant to be followed. And make no mistake, those individual stories are worth following; a couple of moments here are as affecting as anything in Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter.

While we're dissecting critics, here's a more minor quibble. The Kid Stays in the Picture got almost unanimously favorable reviews, but even some writers who liked it found a bone to pick. People talked about directors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein as if they had been duped by their subject, as if Bob Evans was telling lies to the camera and the filmmakers were wrong not to call him on it.

It's hard to imagine how someone could misread this movie so drastically. One of Kid's biggest triumphs is the way it uses its form and style to clue the viewer in to the fact that this isn't meant to be your typical documentary. It chops up and manipulates old photos, for instance, in a flashy way that matches Evans' obviously self-serving but irresistible storytelling style. He's the only one narrating the film, for Pete's sake! There is a great, investigative documentary about this legendary producer out there waiting to be made, no doubt - maybe even by Morgen and Burstein, who considered doing that at one point - but this ain't that movie. Isn't it enough that it's one of the most entertaining tales - fact, fiction, or in-between - to have shown up on screens in the last year? •