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USA 2005
Directed by
Liev Schreiber
115 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars

Everything Is Illuminated

Synopsis: Jonathan (Elijah Wood), an American Jew, travels to the Ukraine in search of a woman who helped rescue his grandfather during the war. Once in Odessa, he embarks upon a road trip, guided by Alex (Eugene Hutz) and Alex's grandfather (Boris Leskin) who operate a family business offering "Heritage Tours for Dead Jews"

Director Liev Schreiber is best known as an actor but his own life experiences drew him to Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, which he adapted for the screen. The film follows a clear formal structure, with a narrator in the form of Alex and the narrative divided by chapter headings, but the formality is by no means reflected in the very funny dialogue and zany doings of the first half. What starts out as a rather zany comedy however ends up as a touching exploration of connection, identity and remembrance.

Jonathan is a bizarre character, heavily bespectacled like a latter-day Clark Kent, and so insecure that he collects bits of life's flotsam in plastic bags as a reminder of his existence. Alex the tour translator is a wonderfully drawn character who speaks in broken English and delivers such lines as "Many girls want to be carnal with me as I am such a premium dancer". His grandfather, on the other hand, is an irascible grump who claims to be legally blind but drives the touring car. Accompanying them all is a dog called Sammy Davis Jnr. Jnr,the "Officious Seeing Eye Bitch".

To the accompaniment of a delightful soundtrack of Ukranian music, the odd-ball foursome drive through various towns and on into the glorious Ukranian countryside in search of Jonathan's grandfather's village. This section of the film takes in some into some delightfully absurdist encounters, all of then made even odder by Jonathan's impassive goggle-eyed, black rimmed glasses stare. A kind of camaraderie develops between the travellers

The film gradually takes a serious turn as the men finally arrive at their destination. The story then immerses itself in the Nazi invasion of the Ukraine and we become aware of intersections between the lives of Jonathan's and Alex's grandfathers.

Adaptations from novels often leave out important things and the sense of a real depth of character in Jonathan is unfortunately largely lacking here. Is he really as obsessive and impassive as Wood portrays him, or are those wretched spectacles too much of a gimmicky distraction? Ditto for the plastic bags. Although the journey is purportedly Jonathan's, in the end it is the journey of Alex's grandfather that comes to the fore and a true depth of emotion is reflected far more in the revelations that concern him.

Despite my few reservations I found this to be a funny and rewarding film, one that approaches the Holocaust in an oblique but no less effective way.




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