Everything Is Illuminated:
by Jonathan Safran Foer
A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia & Ukraine
"Everything Is Illuminated"
On the one hand a picaresque journey with irony and laughs; on the other a serious emotional quest -- how this story comes off to a viewer depends on the resonance one has with the legacy of World War II and postwar effects on its survivors.
Jonathan Foer (Elijah Wood) stares woodenly at a grave. To explain this moment, we lapse back to the time when he, an obsessive collector of artifacts concerning his family and life's countless mementos, started out on a journey to the Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather's life when Nazis wiped out his town and everyone else in it. Before he can find her, however, he must first find Trachimbrod.
For that, he hires professional guides who "cater to rich Jews searching for loved ones." The team he comes up with turn the serious-minded quest into a whimsical routine. At the wheel, for example, is "blind" Grandfather Perchov (Boris Leskin), his "seeing-eye bitch" Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, and English-speaking son Alex (first-timer Eugene Hutz), as translator.
Grandfather's attitude toward his Jewish clientele is mostly a matter of mercenary regard. As the journey progresses, however, and as mysteries are solved, he rediscovers feelings and a lost frame of reference for his customers. This journey affects all the participants, even Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior.
Sammy, in fact, starts out as a demonic, aggressive, demanding little growler and reveals himself to be as sensitive as any sissy pup. All he needs is to get to know Jonathan a little better and this is aided by their sharing the back seat -- despite Jonathan's insistence that he's allergic to dogs. Alex, when not accompanying grandpa, is an acrobatic dancer with a smart lip and a world-weary smugness about the fact that his prowess on the nightclub floor is an aphrodisiac to local women.
In fact, there's something absurd about almost everyone except Jonathan, who plays it rigid and straight-laced. He's dour and fixated on his mission. He's a vegetarian in a country that exists on meat, and his guides are none too helpful when the proprietess of a hostel can only come up with a single potato to satisfy his alien dietary preferences.
No one in or around the Ukrainian countryside ever heard of Trachimbrod. But Grandpa, in a trancelike moment of clarity... or memory... or insight... brings them to a small private road cut through a vast field of sunflowers that leads to an old house and an aged woman. This is the end of the quest, where rumors, theories, and sentimental fictions are transformed into factual light, illuminated.
Writer-director Liev (pronounced Lee-ev) Schreiber makes Wood's stoic lack of expression and morbid obsession with the past work as a flowing source of humor as it so starkly contrasts against the free-wheeling Alex. Simultaneously, the crossover influence each has over the other works as a symbol of cultural and philosophical goal posts in Schreiber's magical-realistic adaptation of the real Jonathan Soer's popular autobiography.
As for the four-legged participant, the first-time director's canine casting is acute, while the film's mix of humor and gravity is a crafty choice to present profound historical injustice and generations of survivors in a commercially viable way. Mainstream, this is not, but the legacy of the Holocaust is not lost. It lingers, as well it should.