Everything Is Illuminated is one of those films that you will discover one way or another. Whether it be a curiosity toward Liev Schrieber’s directorial debut, an exploration of Elijah Wood’s acting resumé, an interest in gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello’s contribution to the soundtrack or even if you’re simply a fan of Jonathon Safran Foer’s 2002 novel, this film will eventually find you.
Released in 2005 as an adaptation of the book, it wasn’t much of a surprise that, despite the celebrity names attached to the project, the film failed to launch itself beyond realms of ‘indie’ status. However, Everything Is Illuminated is a surprisingly reflective, witty and touching effort from Schrieber who both wrote the screenplay and directed the film.
The novel tells the semi-autobiographical tale of author Safran-Foer, played here by a bespectacled Elijah Wood, though its worthy to mention at this point that the film features some plot differences.
Jonathon is a young, American, Jewish man and also a collector of family heirlooms. When his beloved grandfather dies, he begins to question the identity of a woman named Augustine who is pictured in an old photograph of his. He is told she is the woman who helped his grandfather escape Ukraine during the Nazi occupation in World War Two.
He goes in search of her to the forgotten town of Trachimbrod to learn more about his grandfather. Upon his arrival in Ukraine, he is assigned a tour guide in the form of Alex Perchov (a debut performance by Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz), an American culture-obsessed local who prides himself on his premium dancing, carnal skills with women and his broken Thesaurus-fuelled interpretations of the English language.
Accompanied by Alex’s blind anti-semitic grandfather and his ‘seeing eye bitch’ Sammy Davis Jr. Jr, they set off to find Trachimbrod only to embark on a journey of self-discovery and unfolding past-tragedy that turns this quirky comedy into a moving historical drama.
The initial laughs are found with Hutz’s show-stealing performance as Alex, whose cultural naivety plays off Jonathon’s straight’laced neuroticism perfectly. The best lines revolve around Alex’s ridiculous, inaccurate translations with a side order of a cute dog in funny situations. As poignant moments show the cultural distance between Jonathon’s American upbringing and his Ukrainian roots, the blossoming relationship between he and Alex proves to become more complex in the face of truth. As the group reach their destination, they discover the tragic history of the Jews living in Trachimbrod and how their lives are all fatalistically intertwined by the past more than they had anticipated.
Everything Is Illuminated is notable for its beautiful cinematic shots of the Ukrainian countryside and sunflower fields that are recognisable from the film poster. The original soundtrack which features music by Paul Cantelon, Leningrad, Csókolom and, of course, Gogol Bordello is also a high point, giving the movie a more genuine Eastern European feel.
However, the best thing about this film is its good intentions and overall message about understanding our place in the world. We see the characters transform as individuals as they encounter sacrifice, loss and regret which leads to insightful gratitude as well as some heart breaking realisations.
Although this is not exclusively a tribute to deaths of the Holocaust such as a film like Schindler’s List, Everything is Illuminated still retains a power and sentimentality that we can identify with. It is an enjoyable success for Schrieber as he captures a great sense of closure despite the minor changes and omissions of the novel’s original story.
Best scene: Alex and his grandfather discover that Jonathan does not eat meat.
Watch this if you liked: The Darjeeling Limited, Little Miss Sunshine, Life Is Beautiful, Big Fish.