OVERALL RATING: 7/10
Everything is Illuminated, adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same name, teaches the lesson of just how much the past can affect a person’s life. The film is expertly guided by director Liev Schriber through emotional twists and turns, as three men set out on a journey that will, unbeknownst to them, change their lives forever.
Everything is Illuminated follows Jonathan (Elijah Wood), a young American Jewish writer, as he searches the beautiful Ukrainian countryside for secrets to his family’s past. Jonathan has always been fascinated by his family’s past, and enjoys collecting various; seemingly inconsequential items that he assess to have to do with his family’s past and his own heritage. He is accompanied by a translator, Alex (Eugene Hutz), a premium (as Alex, himself might say) man of this world, Alex’s grandfather, a cranky, anti-Semitic, and self-proclaimed blind old man, as his driver, and Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., Grandfather’s “seeing eye bitch”. The three men and dog leave the large city of Odessa, in search of Trochimbrod, the small village in which Jonathan’s grandfather grew up, and Augustina, a mysterious woman who appeared in a photo with Jonathan’s grandfather.
Alex, Jonathan, and Grandfather run into various obstacles along the way, as they zigzag throughout the Ukrainian countryside in search of a village that seems to have been wiped off the face of the map. The film takes a turn for the serious when they stumble upon Trochimbrod in a large field of sunflowers. Alex approaches a small house in the field, so that he may ask for directions, and is greeted by a woman who simply says, “You are here. I am it.”
The men discover that the village is survived by the woman, Lista, Augustina’s older sister, who, much like Jonathan, has collected everything that she can find that has to do with the history of Trochimbrod. She begins showing the men various items from the various boxes stacked against her walls, until she gets to a picture of a bookish young man, Baruch. She describes how Baruch was always a very smart, and very likable man, when, after growing steadily more and more emotional, Grandfather asks Jonathan and Ales to leave the house. It is revealed that Grandfather is Baruch.
While waiting outside, Jonathan comes to the dreadful realization that his grandfather, Safran, was actually a Nazi sympathizer who ultimately led Trochimbrod to its demise. When asked by Alex why he collects things, Jonathan replies, “Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll forget.”
Lista and Grandfather then leave the house, and Grandfather says that she has agreed to take them to Trochimbrod. She leads the men to river where they see a memorial immortalizing the 1,012 men, women and children killed by the Nazis. The Grandfather then has a flashback of himself during the war, in which he is shot by a Nazi soldier. The shot does not kill Baruch, only knocks him unconscious, and upon waking he finds himself in a pile of bodies. Baruch jumps up, and sees Lista collecting various objects off of the dead men. He drops his coat with the Star of David symbol, and fleas the village.
Lista, Jonathan, Alex, and Grandfather return to the house, where Lista gives Jonathan a box labeled “In Case”. She explains how Safran was already married, however he was deeply in love with Augustina. Safran got Augustina pregnant„ and the two decided they would run away to America to raise the baby. While Safran was gone to America to find a home for the baby, the Nazi’s razed Trochimbrod to the ground, and killed Augustina and the baby. Safran then returned to America to raise a family and attempt to forget the terrible events at Trochimbrod.
The men say goodbye to Lista, and head on a return journey. They stop at a hotel in Lutsk, where Grandfather commits suicide in the bathroom. He is discovered by Alex, who claims that he must have wanted to die at home. Jonathan and Alex return to Odessa, where the say goodbye at a train station. Before leaving, Jonathan presents Alex with Safran’s Star of David necklace. Jonathan departs and returns to America while Alex remains in Odessa with his family. Alex’s family buries Grandfather in Trocimbrod, next to the river, so that he may finally rest peacefully in his true home.
Everything is Illuminated has a phenomenal plot, and is thoroughly enjoyable as it leads the watcher on an emotional rollercoaster, however where the film truly stands out is in terms of symbolism. Nearly every action in the film has a secondary meaning that ultimately points to the goal of the journey; the illumination of the past.
In the film, Alex is described as being a man of this world, or, by his own words, a “premium dancer” with whom “many women wish to carnal”. He loves Michael Jackson, hip-hop music, and Kangol hats. This is very interesting, in the context of the film, because of just how immersed Alex is in his own culture and heritage, yet he unintentionally rejects it. He has grown up with his anti-Semitic Grandfather, and because Grandfather is so reluctant to share Alex’s true heritage with Alex, Alex feels he must latch onto a new culture; his choice happens to be American hip-hop.
In the film, we also see Alex’s polar opposite; Jonathan. Jonathan is very traditionally dressed, and he wears the same exact suit throughout the film. He holds himself very conservatively, as he interacts with Grandfather and Alex, even when the two insult his Jewish faith. Jonathan is also completely removed from his Jewish culture, which is interesting. Despite being utterly withdrawn from his heritage, The history of his heritage, and the mystery surrounding Safran and Augustina in Trochimbrod fascinates him to the point of obsession.
The symbolism of the character of Grandfather must be noted, as well. Grandfather is introduced as a cantankerous old anti-Semite. It appears as though he cares not for Jews, or his own Jewish heritage, when in fact Grandfather is a tortured soul. He witnessed so much pain at the hands of the Nazis, solely because of his religion that Grandfather has decided to completely reject Judaism. This is seen clearly when, in a flashback, Grandfather takes his coat, marked with the Jewish Star of David, and throws it on the ground, after narrowly escaping death by firing squad.
When the three characters interact in the film, the dynamic becomes very intense. Alex cannot figure out why conservative Jonathan’s family’s lost history means so much to Jonathan, and the Grandfather is tortured by the idea of facing his demons in Trochimbrod. When the three men are together in Trochimbrod, everything does truly become illuminated. Jonathan explains that his reason for collecting the way he does is so that he does not forget; to forget is tragic thing. Alex finally understands the meaning of having a heritage, despite never having one of his own. And finally, Grandfather feels at home in the remains of Trochimbrod, though, after facing the last surviving Trochimbrod villager and living as an anti-Semite for 40+ years, he cannot live with the guilt he has incurred. While in Trochimbrod, he realizes how much he regrets raising his family non-Jewish, and after they leave Trochimbrod, Grandfather decides he cannot live with the guilt, and takes his own life.
Jonathan led Alex on the journey to find his heritage, and inadvertently led Alex to the recognition of his own. This is summed up towards the end of the film, when Jonathan and Alex say goodbye, and, in a symbolic gesture of kindness, Jonathan gives Alex his Jewish Star of David.
Everything is Illuminated is an excellent film about heritage, history, and the importance of the past. Liev Schriber, in his first venture behind the camera, guides the audience though emotional highs and lows, until, at the climax of the film, “everything is illuminated in the light of the past.”