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Ambitious Illuminated Casts Poignant Light

January 2006

Liev Schreiber's adaptation of Everything Is Illuminated achieves the rare trifecta of intelligence, ambition and guts.

A deeply felt contemplation of memory and assimilation, the film stars Elijah Wood as a Jewish boy-man touring the Ukraine in search of a Holocaust-era family link. If Everything Is Illuminated doesn't quite pull off the difficult trick of balancing farce and pathos, it remains an uncommonly thoughtful and thought-provoking movie.

One of the most compelling aspects of both the movie and Jonathan Safran Foer's audacious novel is the single-minded pursuit of his distant roots by a third-generation American Jew named, not coincidentally, Jonathan Safran Foer.

Jonathan (the character, not the author) is the sole heir and guardian of his fading family history, but what drives his search is the intuition that he can't move forward in life without knowing where he comes from. That involves tracking down the woman who saved his grandfather during World War II, for without her Jonathan would not exist.

Once Jonathan leaves America for the Ukraine, the existential aspects of his identity crisis take a back seat to the absurdities of culture shock. From food to etiquette to temperament, Jonathan is as much an outsider as his ancestors were a century ago.

Jonathan is greeted at the Lvov train station by his erstwhile translator, Alexander (Eugene Hutz), an America-infatuated slacker around the same age who narrates the film. They are a study in contrasts, the gregarious Alex decked out in the hip-hop uniform of gold chains and blue tracksuit while the quietly observant Jonathan plods around in a black suit, Amish-style.

These misfits are joined by Alex's fractious grandfather (played by Boris Leskin), the designated driver, cynic and anti-Semite. And so begins their "very rigid journey," as Alex says in his fractured English.

The trio putters around the countryside to a soundtrack of Ukrainian rock, looking for a shtetl named Trachimbrod that has been erased from contemporary maps. Their encounters with the locals are tinged with an undercurrent of menace, and infinitesimally but inevitably a bond begins to form among the travelers.

At its best, Everything Is Illuminated conveys that the past is still alive in the Ukrainian subconscious. Whether it's a symptom of guilt, anti-Semitism or a desire to avoid revisiting painful memories of World War II, suspicion is an element of every interaction.

Schreiber's screenplay necessarily omits the fantastical, myth-like history of Trachimbrod that Foer evokes so magnificently in his book. Consequently, the road trip through the Ukraine--with its wacky episodes, quirky humor and Grandfather's "seeing-eye bitch," Sammy Davis Junior, Junior--provides the narrative thrust.

Paradoxically, as Jonathan and his guides close in on the secret of Trachimbrod, our empathy for the American wanes. Jonathan's obsessive habit of collecting things in sandwich bags as a way of remembering underscores his detachment from his own emotions, and distances us from him.

A bigger problem, though, is Wood's inscrutable performance. When Grandfather beats Alex for kicking his dog, the camera lingers on Wood's face. Something momentous has happened, but all Wood can convey is shock.

So our focus shifts to Grandfather, who buried his own history long ago, and to Alex, who rejected his own culture in favor of American trappings. Unexpectedly, Everything Is Illuminated crystallizes into an eloquent exposé of the different forms assimilation takes.

Liev Schreiber, a respected actor making his screenwriting and directorial debut, doesn't pull off all the tonal shifts that give the book its special quality. But he grapples with serious questions that more established filmmakers avoid, and that is a rigid and admirable thing indeed.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a San Francisco film critic and journalist.

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