The Holocaust film is a difficult one to master. It means taking a subject that holds so much emotion and pain for so many people and cramming that into two (give or take) tightly packaged hours of entertainment. Yet, there are so many who try, and few who accomplish this seemingly tremendous feat.
Everything Is Illuminated is a Holocaust movie without being a Holocaust movie. It does not focus on the actual event but rather what was left behind. The memories. The forgotten traditions. The ghosts of the past that survive through personal belongings.
The film, based on the best selling book by Johnathan Safron Foer, follows the journey of a young man (also named Jonathan Safran Foer and who is played by Elijah Wood) as he travels through the Ukraine in search of the shtetl (village) where his grandfather once lived. All he has to guide him is a photograph of his grandfather of a young man and a mysterious woman named Augustina. He is looking for her because she saved his grandfather’s life during the war.
Accompanying him on his search are Alex (Eugene Hutz), Jonathan’s translator, Alex’s Grandfather (Boris Leskin) who believes he is blind and also happens to be their driver and Sammy Davis Jr Jr, Grandfather’s seeing eye bitch. They are from Heritage Tours, a travel company that helps Jewish Americans find the towns where their families came from. The four begin their search for Augustina and together they make discoveries not only about the town they are looking for, but about themselves as well.
Liev Schreiber, for whom this is a debut in directing, did a good job when writing the screenplay for this film. He stays very much on the same path at the book and yet makes it accesible for those who haven’t read the novel. Between the majestic footage of the sprwaling Ukrainian countryside and the exchanges that take place between the various characters, the film is delightfully heartwarming.
Elijah Wood’s coke bottle glasses and stiff demeanor are amusing, if even a little annoying and his performance as the nervous, quiet Jonathan is subtle at times and beautifully candid at others. But his character it seems is not the main character of the film. Alex (played by the hilarious new comer Eugene Hutz) is the true star of the movie. With his side-splitting malapropism and his elaborate outfits, Alex is the narrator and the hero.
Alex’s Grandfather is also a character who shines in this film. His gruffness and apparent dislike for Jewish people is offensive even when it is amusing. But he too holds secrets from his past, ones that begin, at first, to reveal themselves to the audience, and eventually to Alex and Jonathan. The search for the past is not just for Jonathan to find out his history, but for Alex and his Grandfather to learn a little more about theirs as well.
The film is more about the duality of history. There is the history that happend and the history that did not. We all have these two histories within our own families. The film simply questions who we would be if our ancestors had not left the countries they were from and who would be if they had.