Thursday, January 11, 2007

Everything is Illuminated

For the past few years I've been writing movie reviews for The Sower, the newspaper of the Anglican Diocese of Calgary. This was a review I wrote of one of my favourite movies of 2006. I've watched it a couple more times since writing this and have read the book. I'm back to thinking that I don't really understand it. I love the movie more every time I see it though.

The first time I watched Everything is Illuminated it wasn’t. I didn’t get the ending of the film The second time I watched the movie I got it - or I think I did.

Everything is Illuminated is a film adaptation by Liev Schreiber of an award winning first novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. It is a quirky story of three men and a dog on a road trip to discover the past.

One of the men is an American Jew named Jonathan Safran Foer played by Elijah Wood. He is an odd young man who shows little affect. He collects artifacts of his dead relatives in ziplock baggies and mounts them on his bedroom wall.

When his grandmother is dying she gives him a photo of his grandfather as a young man and a young woman. His family believes that this young woman, Augustine, saved his family from the Nazis. After his grandmother’s death he sets out to Ukraine to find Augustine and to thank her for his family.

He hires a firm, Heritage Tours, to take him on the journey to find his grandfather’s village. Heritage Tours is a family business established by Alex, the grandfather, in the ‘50s to help rich American Jews search for traces of their families who have been lost in the war. Now it is run by Alex, the son, who sends Alex, the grandson to translate for Jonathan.

Grandfather and father are anti-semitic, resentful that they make their living by serving Jewish tourists. Young Alex, played brilliantly by Eugene Hutz, is infatuated with everything American especially “Negroes.” He would rather spend his time in discos where he is a "premium dancer" who is often "carnal with the ladies". He narrates this story of “a Very Rigid Search” and this is how he speaks English. It is as if he has swallowed a thesaurus but has never actually heard English spoken.

The grandfather is grieving the loss of his wife and has decided he is blind. But this does not stop his son from demanding that he drive the American and his grandson in search for the village of Trachimbrod.

Fortunately they take along his seeing eye dog Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. who isn’t much of a seeing eye dog and who is mentally deranged. She is named for the grandfather’s favourite singer who he refuses to believe was Jewish. So begins the journey of three men and a dog in a Soviet era car that looks like it will fall apart at any minute.

As in all good road movies our group encounter adventures and mysterious strangers. As events unfold we begin to suspect that this is not just an important journey for Jonathan. Grandpa too is entering into the past the closer they get to Trachimbrod.

When they arrive they discover another collector who is able to tell them what they need to know. Like Jonathan she has been preserving evidence of a village’s existence. She is able to illuminate the past and in doing so casts light on the present as well.

In the end the three men and the dog form deep connections and what began as a bizarre kind of comedy becomes something more serious and more moving. And yet, even as it faces the darkness and the evil of the Nazis' persecution of the Jews of Europe the film is able to strike some odd and even joyous notes.

There is much I liked about this film. Besides all the offbeat characters and the translation humour the story of a young man trying to preserve the memory of the past is very moving. It is also beautifully filmed with dramatic shots of fields of sunflowers with contrasting shots of rusted out WW II tanks and decrepit Soviet buildings. The decaying evidence of past violence and oppression parallels the marks left by the war on the lives of two young men born decades after it finished.

Everything is Illuminated is also driven by a marvelous soundtrack. Much of the music was composed by Paul Cantelon and captures a wonderful Eastern European sound. There are also cuts from a variety of bands including Eugene Hutz gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello. The music manages to capture the joy and the sadness that lies at the heart of this story.

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