Everything is Illuminated
A supremely premium film by Liev Schreiber
I chose to review the movie because, first, I watched it before I read it, and second, because the movie can and does stand on its legs. In fact, and despite the risk of uttering blasphemy, I liked the movie a little better for its unity and focus. And its excellent soundtrack.
The movie begins with the act of writing. We are introduced to Alexander “Alex” Perchov (Eugene Hütz), the Ukranian writer with a distressing but impossibly funny not-first-rate command of the English language. Starting off as an aspiring American with a fascination for hip-hop, African Americans (he uses the ‘N- word’), famous dance clubs, disseminating currency and the year 1969, Alex’s life turns around and around when he, his ‘blind’ grandfather (Boris Leskin), and his grandfather’s officious seeing-eye bitch Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. take the Jewish American client, Jonathan S. Foer (Elijah Wood), and search for the small shetl of Trachimbrod and Augustine, the girl who saved Jonathan’s grandfather.
Alex, Jonfen, Grandfather …and Sammy Davis Jr. Jr.
While the movie is supposedly about Jonathan’s search for his his roots and his grandfather’s story, we find that the film is also very much about Alex and his grandfather’s. Spiced with terrible English, outrageous humor, and genuinely touching moments, Everything is Illuminated is a story of alienation, of query, of unity, of identity, and of discovery–and indeed, “everything is illuminated in the light of the past.” In the end, we, like Alex, find ourselves enlightened, and we understand that the past is not there for us to find, but rather, we are here so that the past and its treasure trove of memories can be passed, can live on, can be told into a story.
I believe the movie works very well partly because of its wonderful soundtrack. Ranging from the lighthearted and playful to the calm and melancholic, the music by Paul Cantelon and the bands such as Leningrad and Gogol Bordello (whose members include Hütz) beautifully portray the wide range of emotions in the film. The use of Eastern European musical strings and strains provide a unique cultural authenticity to the story, so much so that even until now, whenever I hear guitars and balalaikas I recall sunflowers, falling in love in Odessa, and Anastasia. Okay, so the last one is probably some other movie’s fault.
Of course, it’s a downright shame that this movie never even got an Oscar. But perhaps the people behind Everything is Illuminated (and let’s not forget the author, J. S. Foer) can be satisfied knowing that someone out there thinks it is right up there with other first-rate films like Before Sunrise, before Sunset, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and that, in its own right, it is considered by this someone as the best Holocaust film yet.
(My thanks to Ms. Jackie Jacinto for introducing us this movie in her Philo class, and to my mom and sisters, who commenced a very rigid search in America just to disseminate a DVD copy to me.)