Everything is Illuminated (2005)

We are all immigrants. We all have roots elsewhere. Even if you think you’ve lived in the same little town for generations, keep digging and eventually you’ll find that somewhere, at some point in the past, your ancestors have come here, and decided to stay. They immigrated. Therefore you too are immigrants. Don’t argue with it, don’t rationalize it, just look long enough at your family tree and you’ll see where the roots come from. And if you don’t see them – aren’t you curious to find out? That’s the idea at the core of this movie. And you don’t have to be a nostalgic, odd-looking, Jewish boy to start looking for your roots half-way across the globe. You just have to be curious enough…

Everything Is Illuminated is a directorial debut of Liev Schreiber (Spinning Boris, Manchurian Candidate, Sum of All Fears, RKO 281) based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. A great novel, heavy with stories of a Ukrainian Jewish village that was essentially saved by one woman. Liev mentioned (after the screening) that he discarded most of the heavy material and concentrated on a “road trip” movie. I think it was a great decision – leave the heavy stuff for readers – tell a compelling story in less than two hours. And here’s the story.

A strange-looking American comes to town (Elijah Wood playing Johathan Foer), looking for his Ukrainian roots, more specifically a village that no longer exists on any maps. He’s escorted around countryside by Alex (Eugene Hutz), his grandfather (they run a business together – showing out-of-towners around – to find graves of their ancestors, archival records, etc), and grandfather’s seeing-eye dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. Elijah is the odd man out, a collector of memories – he has a wall in his room covered in plastic bags, each containing a piece of his family’s history, a piece of himself. The collection is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen – brooches, pens, pins, wrappers – it’s not your typical photos and letters. But then again, he’s not a typical kid. For instance, he also doesn’t eat meat – which not only provides a hilarious running joke for the movie, but also comments on our personal choices as individuals.

The film captures you immediately – with many things. First of all, the language. Alex steals the show with his rough Russian-to-English witticisms. Poorly translated, they manage to create better, juicier words and phrases than the original parts. The movie (the dialogue) sounds like something from The Clockwork Orange – a mix of two, maybe three distinct languages that we understand, and not only that, we appreciate the blend. The fact that Alex can butcher the grammar, and still be understood not only by Jonathan, but also by Alex’s grandfather is phenomenal. Also is unbelievable the soundtrack. Many songs are sung in Russian, they match the content of the scene perfectly. I was watching the film and feeling home – an American movie that actually describes Russian culture in its own terms, in its own language. No lousy accents delivered by foreigners – these were Russian actors, and some of the stuff they said wasn’t even subtitled. The story is so universal, I’m sure everyone in the room got it.

And here’s the best part of the movie. The plot – it’s so familiar, and yet unusual. There have been are many immigrant stories in past films – some told in foreign languages, others -are made and told from the Western perspective. Everything Is Illuminated manages to capture both sides of the story, scene after scene. It shows the people who left to find a better life in a new place, and also the people who stayed behind and made their lives better where they were. It shows Russian mentality and American value system – both dead-on. It compares generations, and keeps them in their places – no cloying family moments, but normal, understandable age gaps. And since the two cultures are overall different, the resulting contrast is stunning. As an immigrant I appreciated this sharp contrast a little more. The language can be mixed, the clothes can be exchanged, but the values – cannot. Jonathan longs to find the person who saved his grandfather – and therefore saved his entire family – from a brutal Nazi execution. His Russian guides don’t understand why go through all that trouble to find something in the past. After all, the past is dead, isn’t it? WWII is not an easy topic to bring up, but the movie slowly builds this up, even though the plot is about those in search of the village, not the village itself.

As Jonathan’s journey comes closer to its natural destination, so do the guides start asking about their roots, their legacy. And as Jonathan opens up about his roots and his reasons for such an elaborate, expensive journey, his guides internally make a very similar journey for their own roots. The countryside is beautifully shot, and the “mestechko” is conveyed perfectly. That’s how a village would look like, and that’s exactly how you would find it if it wasn’t on any maps. It’s realistic.

The film is a great road trip – very unusual, and highly entertaining. Like “The Terminal” in 2004, it’s about everyone, and so nobody will see it. It shows real people doing real jobs and speaking a real language (yes, we immigrants do tend to butcher English to get an idea across – and so what, as long as we understand each other). It shows cultures that seem very different on the surface, and people who can make a specific impression right away. But in time these impressions change. Everything Is Illuminated delivers its message and gives a lasting impression in less than two hours.

But unfortunately it won’t be seen by enough people to make a difference. Go catch it in theaters, and if you missed it – it’s an absolute must-own on DVD. Repeat viewings, translations, visuals and documentaries. It’s great value. After all, we are all immigrants. Jonathan Safran Foer has found his roots. Have you?


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