Everything Is Illuminated

****

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Liev Schreiber's many performances, from the Scream trilogy to The Manchurian Candidate, have already made him a familiar face on the big screen, but Everything Is Illuminated, which he wrote and directed, marks his debut behind the camera.

Adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer's short story A Very Rigid Search, and taking its title from Foer's first novel, of which the short story formed the nucleus, Everything Is Illuminated seems at first - by throwing insistently "wacky" characters together on a road trip - to be following a well-worn route for indie debuts. But Schreiber then heads down unexpected by-roads where the going is more satisfyingly rough and rocky, before ending up at a place too tragic to be trite and too ambivalent to be cloying. And while the film, concerned as it is with the brotherhood of man, is undoubtedly humanist in its philosophy, there are enough shades of grey to cast long shadows over its apparently sunny outlook.

Obsessively bagging and tagging objects that he has inherited, or stolen, from his Jewish-American family (photos, jewellery, false teeth, even a used condom), collector Jonathan Safran Foer (Elijah Wood) sets off on a journey to uncover his roots, spurred by the discovery of a photo, taken in 1940, of his grandfather in Ukraine with a mysterious woman.

Assisting him in this "most rigid search" is Heritage Tours, a hopelessly unprofessional outfit, comprising an elderly eccentric (Boris Leskin) as driver, his hip-hop loving grandson Alex (Eugene Hutz) as translator and a deranged dog called Sammy Davis Jr Jr. There seems to be a world of difference between the reserved Jewish outsider and his demonstrative, anti-Semitic local guides, but, as they travel together in a banged-up Trabant, through Ukraine's hidden hinterlands, they find their past history and present identity merging in a map of their own making.

The film's opening image is of an insect trapped in amber, an object that seems to accrue new significance with its every owner. For Jonathan it is the heart of a mystery, for his grandfather it is a treasured memento, for the woman in the photo a decorative brooch and for her sister (Laryssa Lauret) it is the missing centrepiece of a shrine to memory. Similarly, the past itself (Jonathan's, Alex's and both their grandfathers') is envisaged as something fragile, yet capable of being both preserved and revalued. Other objects (a Star of David, a wedding ring, a manuscript) change hands and significance in the course of the film, in a cultural exchange spanning different generations and continents

Jonathan, however, played with unblinking blankness by Wood, remains essentially unchanged by his odyssey (unless learning to like dogs qualifies as meaningful change), and is, like the insect in amber, merely a catalyst for the events around him. Only Alex, played with vital energy by newcomer Hutz, undergoes any real metamorphosis, while only his guilt-ridden and (at least figuratively) blind grandfather truly opens his eyes to the past (even if exactly what he sees remains a mystery).

Everything Is Illuminated is about storytelling: not only Alex's narration (in hilariously mangled English) of Jonathan's search for his past, but also Alex's retelling of his own life and family history. Indeed, it is storytelling that can bring significance to otherwise inert objects, can turn the arbitrary jetsam of history into personal memory and can find life and renewal in death itself. Yet storytelling can also involve the deception of others, or of oneself, and although Alex comes to believe and record one version of his grandfather's wartime conduct, altering profoundly his own sense of identity in the process, the film contains strong hints (if nothing more) of an alternative, far less comforting state of affairs, where his grandfather may have been on the other side of the Nazi rifle.

For Alex, in the end, everything is illuminated, and his whole way of life changes accordingly, but for us, perhaps, everything remains shrouded in obscurity and Alex's revelatory experience may seem based in little more than wishful thinking, or else plain self-delusion. This does not make his transformation any less compelling, but it does suggest that history is merely what we make of it - a truly provocative message for a film so focused upon memories of the Holocaust.

Reviewed on: 25 Nov 2005
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A man heads on an odyssey to the Ukraine, to trace his father's roots.
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Angus Wolfe Murray ***1/2

Director: Liev Schreiber

Writer: Liev Schreiber, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer

Starring: Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Leskin, Laryssa Lauret, Jana Hrabetova, Stepan Samudovsky, Ljubomir Dezera, Oleksandr Choroshko, Gil Kazimirov, Zuzana Hodkova, Ludmila Kartouska, Elias Bauer, Bert Schneider, Tereza Veselkova, Lukas Kral, Vera Sindelarova

Year: 2005

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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