Adoration, Atom Egoyan’s dizzying, thematically dense whatsit is something of a puzzler. An investigation into Egoyan themes classic (the ways in which televisual media dictate an individual’s relation to the world) and recent (the legacy of racial hatred and religious extremism, both personal and historical), the film’s opaque blend of intellectual talking points, self-conscious topicality, and impressively intricate plotting proves to be a heady mix, but Egoyan’s privileging of wordy discourse over character and sheer density over everything else leads to a certain conceptual impasse. So that even as the film’s final revelation unfolds with great narrative clarity, its thematic implications remain largely muddled and its intended emotional impact feels oddly muted.
Cutting back and forth in time, moving freely between the objective and the speculative, Egoyan’s narrative turns on a rather ludicrous, if thematically evocative, conceit. When his high school French teacher gives the class a translation exercise about a thwarted terrorist airline bombing, Simon (Devon Bostick) writes up the story from a personal perspective, as if his own father were the perpetrator. The teacher, Sabine (Arsinée Khanjian), encourages the boy to expand the story and then present it to the class as if it were fact. But Simon takes things one step further and broadcasts it on the Internet and, given the ethnic and religious tensions inherent in the narrative (the attacker was Arab and the plane was headed to Israel), a whole range of commentators come out of the virtual woodwork, an assortment of professors, students, Holocaust survivors, and Holocaust deniers.
Egoyan is clearly interested in showing how contemporary media allows for the quick construction of false identities as well as in illustrating the rapidity in which this lying information travels (most evocatively illustrated through Simon’s multi-person video chats in which he interfaces with dozens of users simultaneously), but the high schooler’s project also provides the filmmaker—and his main character—with an opportunity to pursue a parallel line of inquiry. With the help of Sabine, who takes a suspiciously personal interest in the boy’s life, Simon begins digging up the dirt on his own family history: the real circumstances of his parents’ car crash death, the legacy of racial bigotry passed down from his grandfather to the uncle who raised him after he became an orphan, and his own father’s Arabic identity. All of which allows Egoyan to draw parallels between various forms of religious and ethnic intolerance—white racism, Islamic extremism, the Crusades—and situate this prejudice in both a familial and historical context. But as with much of his weighty thematic material, the filmmaker is content to pepper his forced equivalencies across the film’s surface rather than allowing them to emerge organically from the narrative.
The film’s final act shifts its focus to Sabine and, in revealing her own backstory, makes clear the nature of her personal stake in Simon’s life. But despite Egoyan’s smooth juggling of his various narrative strands, it’s at this point that the film begins to feel overburdened. By presenting the secret past of a character that has previously stood at the film’s margins—a moderately intriguing blank—as the stuff of revelation, the filmmaker overestimates the viewer’s involvement with his thinly sketched characters. While it’s easy enough to admire this sequence as an experiment in elaborate plotting, it’s difficult to express much astonishment when our minimal understanding of the past of a woman we barely know, and a man we don’t know at all, is suddenly revised. And therein lies the film’s chief problem: Egoyan is so concerned with packing as much narrative and thematic material into his film that he doesn’t quite know what to do with it. For all the show he makes out of tying up the film’s loose ends, his film only coheres at the level of plotting.
Interestingly enough, Egoyan provides his own critique of his latest feature, albeit inadvertently. In one of the film’s central scenes, Sabine proposes her project to Simon, asking him to enlarge his faux autobiographical sketch and read it to the class. When the boy questions her reasons, she explains, “It’s an exercise.” The boy, dubious, responds, “An exercise in what?”