Monday, September 19, 2005

FILM: Everything Is Illuminated

Liev Schreiber, in his directorial debut, has done a phenomenal job in his adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything Is Illuminated. The film is a visually rich, dialogue-spare exploration of how our family history shapes us, how ancestral memories, even those long suppressed, are somehow genetically encoded and handed down, making us who we are. The structure of the film is a road trip story, but the trip is really into the past, into lost and suppressed memories, and subsequent illumination. And the characters are far from your typical road trip characters. There is Jonathan, a pasty stiff repressed Jewish young man with a passion for collecting petty artifacts of his life in ziplock bags. Then there is Alex, the Ukrainian young man with a "less than prime" command of the English language who serves as Jonathan's translator on their trip into the Ukrainian countryside, even though he'd rather be hitting the night clubs of Odessa. And there is Alex's Grandfather, the driver for their trip, whose wide-eyed unshaven face looks like a Van Gogh portrait, and who thinks that he is blind. Rounding out the party is Sammy Davis Junior, Junior, a deranged mutt who serves as Grandfather's "officious seeing-eye bitch". This unlikely group sets out into the Ukrainian countryside in search of a woman who saved Jonathan's grandfather from the Holocaust, armed only with a decades-old photograph, a first name, and the name of a long-destroyed shtetl that hardly anyone remembers. Jonathan is stiff and reserved, but the garrulous Alex does his best to keep conversation going despite his broken English, and to calm his curmudgeonly Grandfather who seems haunted by something when he's not making gruff remarks. Their exchanges are quite amusing at times, and provide just the right comic balance to what would otherwise be a very ponderous film. Much of the movement in this film takes place "between the lines", and in visually rich sequences. The film plays with time (Dali's "The Persistence of Memory" comes to mind), dissolving liquidly between present characters and their own past, or their ancestors' pasts. Cultural memory and its suppression is a theme subtly woven throughout the movie, not just in Jonathan's passion for collecting, but in Alex's coming to realize his blind spots about Ukraine's history, and even references to the Soviet conscious oppression of memory and its becoming a memory itself. (At one point, they drive past an abandoned gray concrete housing project. "What is that?" Jonathan asks. "Soviet," Alex replies, as if that explains everything. "What happened to it?" "Independence.") Schreiber gets exquisite performances out of Eijah Wood (Jonathan), Eugene Hutz (Alex), Boris Leskin (Grandfather), and Laryssa Lauret (the last remnant of the shtetl). Elijah Wood is famously wide-eyed and often a bit blank, but that suits his character (think Harold from Harold and Maude). Hutz, who is not so much an actor as the leader of a New York-based "gypsy punk" band called Gogol Bordello (who provide some of the music for the excellent soundtrack), does a wonderful job in the central role. And Leskin is perfect as the gruff, haunted Grandfather. What these characters eventually discover changes all of them, and will make a powerful impression on the viewer.

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