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I saw this movie at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.
Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated is the directorial debut of actor Liev Schreiber. Schreiber also wrote the screenplay. In the movie, Jonathan (Elijah Wood) obsessively collects items from his family, from toothbrushes to retainers to scraps of paper which he then seals in ziploc bags and pins to a wall in his house to record his family history. But the space for his grandfather is conspicuously bare. All Jonathan really has of him is a piece of jewelry and an old photo of him with a woman who hid him from the Nazis during the Second World War. Jonathan decides to undertake a quest to Ukraine to find the woman, thank her, and learn more about his grandfather.
His quest is aided there by a couple of characters who run a tourist company for Jewish people, including a young man obsessed with western culture (Eugene Hutz), his grandfather (Boris Leskin), who thinks he is blind and who may have memories and demons of his own from the war, and his grandfather's temperamental seeing eye dog.
The screenplay effectively combines both humour and drama as the three characters travel through the countryside looking for Jonathan's grandfather's town, driving deeper and deeper into the memories of the past. The best performance probably comes from Eugene Hutz, playing Alex Jr., who starts the movie as a tracksuit-wearing, break dancing slacker just out to have fun but evolves into something more as not only Jonathan, but all the characters gain their own illumination.
Liev Schreiber, Elijah Wood, and Eugene Hutz attended the screening and did a very humorous Q&A after the film:
- Schreiber was very close to his grandfather, who was a Ukranian immigrant, and who died in 1993. This caused him to start to write to get his memories down on paper. Meanwhile, he was asked to do a reading of Foer's short story, The Very Rigid Search, which was an excerpt from the still unpublished novel. Schreiber was blown away by the quality of the writing, saying that Foer had done in 15 pages what Schreiber tried to do in 107. Schreiber approached Foer and they talked about their grandfathers, culture, movies, and the nature of short-term memory in America; in the end, Foer agreed to let Schreiber adapt the book.
- Schreiber's own project was intended to be a road movie, but the book has parallel narrative that is an imagined chronological history of the town of Trochenbrod that spans 500 years; given his budget and limitations as a filmmaker, he said he'd leave that to Milos Forman and take the road trip instead. This imagined chronology was what moved him to make the movie in the first place, the idea that "a past lovingly imagined was as valuable as a past accurately recalled".
- Schreiber said the movie was a series of happy accidents. After searching unsuccessfully in Ukraine for an actor, he was walking through the Lower East Side in New York, when he saw a poster of a woman centaur, topless from the waist up, with an insane cossack sitting astride her. Under the poster said the name Gogol Bordello Ukranian Punk Gypsy Band.
Eugene Hutz then took over the story. He had never pursued acting as music was his first passion. One day, a friend gave him the book, and he thought it was written in a manner similar to how he writes music; screw sentences/syntax, language is my own.
Later, they got a call from a production company, looking for eastern European music that was medieval but modern. Hutz met with Schreiber, and he soon found the movie was based on the book he just happened to be reading. Not long after that came up, Schreiber asked Hutz what he thought about Alex and whether he could do the character by any chance.
- Foer and Schreiber talked about the film in the fall of 2001, shortly after the events of September 11. Both were in Europe at the time and they talked about the derogatory comments they were hearing about Americans, which led Schreiber to want to try to find an articulate American who would defy the stereotype that Europeans have of Americans. Someone who was awkward, vulnerable, flawed, innocent, and looking for history beyond the borders of his own country. Schreiber started thinking about who that was, and Elijah came up.
One of Schreiber's inspirations as a filmmaker is Emir Kusturica (I think that's who he said, who also directed a segment in another festival movie, All the Invisible Children) who said "you don't look for the actors, you look for the people." Schreiber said there is something about who Elijah is that he has a generosity of spirit and a sincere goodness as a human being, that came across on film. Schreiber said that the eyes are important when trying to articulate a character who is an observer, and that if "eyes are the doors to the soul, Elijah's are garage doors."
- Elijah Wood had fun with a question about the similarities between his character Kevin in Sin City and Jonathan in this movie as both are sort of a blank slate on which emotions are projected. Wood replied that Jonathan may seem still and seemingly emotionless, but it is all about his observations, about his experiences with other characters and the environment he was in.
- On the differences between directing and writing: Schreiber said he likes writing a lot more and jokingly described directing as "hell". After his grandfather died, Schreiber started to think about how to preserve some sense of history and himself; is he content driven or not, or just good at interpreting other people's work? He said he loved the exercise of figuring out what is emotional to you, important to you.
I just saw "Everything is Illuminated" at the Telluride Film Festival.
This is a truly remarkable film. Very emotional, funny at times and
heart-warming. Bring your handkerchiefs! For those of you who enjoy a
movie that brings tears to your eyes, I'm reminded of the endings of
"Babette's Feast" and "The Notebook." The stories were completely
different but had that same emotional power to bring tears to my eyes,
just as this film did.
No spoilers here. The summary is, as IMDb describes, a young man's journey to the Ukraine to follow his roots and find the village where his father grew up.
The dialog is in English and Ukrainian (and Russian too, I believe). This allows for some wonderfully linguistically-based moments as one character interprets, more or less faithfully, for the English speaker in the group, depending on the circumstances.
The scenery is wonderful and the musical score is a treat with wonderful Eastern European influences. Be sure you stay through the credits for the final tune.
This is Lieve Schreiber's directorial debut and is well done. I give this film a 9, one of the best films I've seen in a long time. I recommend it highly.
In Everything Is Illuminated, Elijah Wood plays Jonathan Foer, a Jewish
American who is looking for the woman who saved his grandfather during
WWII. In a sense, the woman that saved his entire family.
This is a heart-felt tale about someone who is on a seemingly hopeless journey. A stranger in a strange land so to speak. Jonathan is not entirely prepared for this adventure, he sticks out like a sore thumb in the Ukraine (he would probably stick out like a sore thumb anywhere). But what he discovers is more, much more than he anticipated. This movie will make you laugh and will make you cry. Elijah Wood is really good in this film, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer.
From someone I talked to, this movie is somewhat different from the book. A book I gather is really good. Nevertheless, this is a good movie, it has something for everyone and I really enjoyed it. Can someone say Oscar?
This is precious. Everything Is Illuminated is sweetly and sublimely
funny from the first delicious line of dialogue. Oh, how I've been
waiting for this to arrive in Austin. While Elijah Wood is charming as
ever as Jonathan Safran Foer (the real-life author of the novel
Everything Is Illuminated), it's Eugene Hutz (playing Jonathan's
Ukrainian tour-guide and translator, Alex) who truly steals this film.
Alex is a hip-hop-lovin' Ukrainian break-dancer who, along with his
grandfather, helps Jonathan find the woman who saved Jonathan's
grandfather's life during World War II. The Ukrainian countryside has
never looked so breath taking. I'm thinking of packing it all up and
moving to the former Soviet state.
The tone of the film, however, shifts when Jonathan and Alex do finally meet the woman they're looking for, and suddenly, this adorable comedy turns into a heart-breaking historical drama about a Jewish village that was annihilated during the Nazi occupation. Everything Is Illuminated is about history, heritage, and the wisdom that can be gained from uncovering the past. It's perfect.
If anyone has any doubts about the talent of Liev Schrieber, just a
look at his new film, "Everything is Illuminated", which clearly shows
a man that is not only one of America's finest actors, but a new
director whose first effort is indeed an inspiration and a harbinger of
what is to follow. Mr. Schreiber has adapted the novel by Jonathan
Safran Foer into a film that will live forever because of the way the
director has adapted the material. The film clearly surpassed our
expectations since we had no preconceived ideas.
For those who haven't watched the film, perhaps you should stop reading here.
Jonathan is a collector. His love for his grandparents is boundless. He watches as his grandfather dies and as his grandmother is on what appears to be her death bed. On a clear moment, this dying woman gives Jonathan a picture and an amber ornament for his collection. Watching the photograph, taken a long time ago, a young couple are seen together. Watching makes Jonathan think it shows the grandfather and his girlfriend, taken on happier times. Watching the snapshot seems to be the motivation for this intense young man to go looking for his ancestors' past in the Ukraine.
Jonathan has made arrangements with a travel agency, Heritage Tours, of Odessa for his trip to Trochenbrod, the mythical place where his grandfather came from. The agency is handled by an older man, who claims to be blind, and his grandson, Alex, a man who loves the pop American culture that has captured his imagination, as well as his contemporaries in the country. Alex speaks a kind of English no one speaks and his conversation and translation, for Jonathan's benefit are hilarious to our ear for the use of sometimes unheard English terms. The old man insists in taking his dog, Sammy Davis Jr., against the wishes of Jonathan, who doesn't want to sit next to the snarling and barking animal during the trip.
As they embark in search of Trochenbrod, it's clearly that his companions, especially the old man has no clue where he is going. At this point, the film becomes a road movie, as the three characters riding the back roads of the country become more acquainted with one another. As the trio arrive at the sunflower field with the house at the end, it indicates they have indeed come to the right place. Some places are a clear reminder of the conflicts of the past.
The older woman, living in the isolated place, is the missing link of the story. She is able to put things into the right perspective. But here is where the story changes its emphasis from Jonathan, who clearly has come to the land of his ancestors, to the old man. We watch as this older man starts remembering things about himself. This, in turn, changes the dynamic of the film as we discover how connected Jonathan and his guides have been all the time.
Some criticism in these pages have expressed opinions about the accuracy of the story, which after all, it's a work of fiction and liberties have been taken. It would have been impossible to make another film including so much that is contained in the book. The great way the film is divided into different chapters is a clever way to let the viewer know what's about to be seen.
Elijah Wood, a magnificent film actor, does an excellent work by underplaying Jonathan. Mr. Wood makes one of his best appearances in any film with his interpretation of the main character. The felicitous casting of Eugene Hutz as Alex, the Ukranian tour assistant and translator, seems to be an idea made in heaven. Mr. Hutz is about the best thing in the film. His arcane usage of English gives the film a funny angle that delights the viewer. Boris Leskin as Alex's grandfather and driver of the tour car makes a valuable contribution to the film, as well as Laryssa Lauret, who is seen in the last part of the movie.
The excellent cinematography of Matthew Libatique brings the splendor of the Czech Republic's countryside in all its magnificence. The musical score by Paul Cantelon is heard in the background adorning the film in ways that it adds a richness to the movie.
Above all, this is a triumph for Liev Schreiber, the first time director that will surely go far in whatever he decides to do next.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Actor turned director Liev Schreiber (The Sum of All Fears) does an
above average screen version of the novel, Everything Is Illuminated,
by author Jonathan Safran Foer. This tale of journey and self discovery
is highlighted by strong ensemble performances and sharp direction with
a storyline that enriches and enlightens the soul.
Jonathan Foer (Elijah Wood) is a young man who has seen his grandfather, Safran, pass away. Jonathan has a peculiar habit of taking small objects and life's little memorabilia and sealing them in plastic ziplock bags to display them on his wall. Safran gives Jonathan an old picture showing a young Safran standing next to a beautiful girl who saved his life many years ago. Thus Jonathan commences on a long journey to locate this mystery woman in the Ukraine not knowing if she is still alive. He enlists the help of a brash, young tour guide named Alex (Eugene Hutz) and his grandfather (Boris Leskin) to drive him to his goal. At first the trip hits dead ends and false leads, but as the group nears its target, the men find themselves amid the ruins of a dark chapter in history with the memories of war and the past ghosts of a nonexistent town. There, they find their own respective destinies and will be forever changed by what they learn.
This film feels like it was directed by someone who knew how to get the most from his actors. At times, the film is spoken in Russian and seems like a foreign film. The title itself is a play on self discovery. This is a thoughtful trek of one man into his past, and his past ironically involves his companions; Jonathan's obsessive journey becomes an emotional journey for Alex and his grandfather as well. It's a tale of bonding over the long haul and the guilt one must carry for a lifetime. By the end of the film, these characters have all experienced life altering events that will permanently intertwine their lives. It proves that memories can be powerful in traumatizing and also cleansing the soul. It's also about one's legacy and how others view an event or a person in the past. Alex eventually sees his grandfather in a completely different light. Even our perception of these individuals will have changed by film's end which is a tribute to a story that is well told.
The story is deceptively simple. It functions as a road trip movie (like The Straight Story) combined with an interesting mystery story. It really involves a great many layers of emotions and subplots that range from the past to the present. The ending is a bit surreal with its déjà vu feeling.
Elijah Wood (Sin City, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)) has chosen a wide range of roles ever since his splash in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Here, he does a fine job with what is essentially a minimalist role with not much to show. Eugene Hutz and Boris Leskin fare better as Alex and his grandfather respectively. Even the grandfather's dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (that's right) is funny as a fiercely loyal companion.
The spare music score by Paul Cantelon is a moody compliment to the thoughtful nature of the film. The editing is effective as imagery from past and present are linked and transitioned effortlessly. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique (Gothika, Requiem for a Dream) is appropriately stark and lifeless with some impressive images of war and its aftermath.
The coincidences that emerge during the last half of the film make for good drama but are a little too coincidental. We never fully understand the whole background story of Alex's grandfather and what his motivations are. Likewise, Jonathan's blank stares and lack of apparent substance and depth do not give us much more than a sketch of a quirky man. At times, the film feels a little downbeat and depressing as more horrific revelations are exposed. But these are minor criticisms of what is a good, introspective story with good performances and interesting themes of remembrance and closure. That Schreiber not only directed but adapted the screenplay to this worthwhile slice of history is a tribute to his talents and promising potential in the future.
"Everything is Illuminated" is a simplified interpretation of something
more than half of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel. This version is more
about changes in Eastern Europe from World War II through post-Cold War
and how the younger generation relates to that history as a family
Debut director/adapter Liev Schreiber retains some of the humor and language clashes of the novel, mostly through the marvelous Eugene Hutz as the U.S.-beguiled Ukrainian tour guide. He is so eye-catching that the film becomes more his odyssey into his country and his family as he goes from his comfortable milieu in sophisticated Odessa to the heart of a cynical, isolated land that has been ravaged by conquerors through the Communists and now capitalists, with both Jews and non-Jews as detritus. As funny as his opening scenes are when he establishes his cheeky bravura, we later feel his fish-out-of-waterness in his own country when he tries to ask directions of local yokels.
Shreiber uses Elijah Wood, as the American tourist, as an up tight cog in a visual panoply, as his character is less verbal than as one of the narrators in the book. He and Hutz play off each other well until the conclusion that becomes more sentimental in this streamlined plot. Once the grandfather's story takes over in the last quarter of the film, marvelously and unpredictably enacted by Boris Leskin, the younger generation does not seem to undergo any catharsis, as they just tidy up the closure.
Schreiber does a wonderful job visualizing the human urge to document history. One of his consultants in the credits is Professor Yaffa Eliach and her style of remembering pre-Holocaust shtetl life through artifacts clearly inspired the look and it is very powerful and effective.
The Czech Republic stands in for the Ukraine and the production design staff were able to find memorable symbols of change in the cities, towns and countryside, as this is now primarily a road movie, and the long driving scenes do drag a bit. Schreiber retains some of the symbolism from the book, particularly of the moon and river, but having cut out the portions of the book that explain those, they just look pretty or ominous for atmosphere and no longer represent time and fate.
As W.C. Fields would have predicted, the dog steals most of his scenes for easy laughs. In general, Schreiber does go for more poignancy than the book. It is irresistibly touching, especially for those who haven't read the book, but less morally and emotionally messy.
The film is enormously uplifted by its marvelous soundtrack, which ranges from songs and instrumentals from Hutz's gypsy band to traditional tunes to contemporary tracks to Paul Cantelon's klezmer fusion score.
This is not a Holocaust film per se, being a kind of mirror image of "The Train of Life (Train de vie)" as about memory of a time that is freighted with meaning now, but will resonate more with those who have an emotional connection to that history.
What an original piece of work. I've always enjoyed Liev Schreiber the
"actor", but now one must appreciate the man on a multi-dimensional
level . How did he get that field of sunflowers? Was it computerize, it
sure looked real. And how do you audition a dog knowing you are going
to get that kind of performance? Does the academy have a category for
animals? I guess what I'm saying is that I really, really enjoyed this
quirky, offbeat, little indie film. From the excellent cast (one would
never know Eugene Hutz was not a pro actor) to the cinematographer
(some beautiful shots) the music (bought the CD when exiting the
theater) and of course the two "D's" (direction and the DOG). All in
all a "10".
Everything Is Illuminated A young Jewish American searches for the
woman that helped his grandfather escape Nazi persecution while
embarking on a cross-European tour with some unlikely associates.
Liev Schreiber makes his directorial debut with a playful angst usually associated with his acting ethos. When successful actors decide to sit in the director's chair, we usually get a biographical glimpse at the souls beneath the acting mask- Check. We usually get a mishmash of genres- Check. But what we normally do not get is an insightful original film which is credible, intelligent and moving.
Elijah Wood plays Jonathan, an inquisitive young boy who collects pieces of life as he goes. He is on a mission to find a woman in a photograph. The sepia picture bears his grandfather (an uncanny resemblance to him) and the woman. To aid his journey he enlists the help of travel guides that comprise of a Hip-Hop loving break-dancer, Alex (Eugene Hutz), his apathetic and perma-vexed grandfather (Boris Leskin) and his dog- Sammy Davis Junior Jr! What ensues is essentially a comedy. There is an un-patronisingly simple introduction with voice-overs. Alex's is especially funny as he educates his younger brother on the year 1969, proving how popular he is with the chicks and break-dancing thus setting him up as Jonathan's antithesis.
Schreiber begins to break down the characters as they progress and the comedy acts as an intentional veil to what is a story about three people linked to the holocaust who do not really know themselves. All three hold the film with tenderness and authenticity something Schreiber was unlikely to get wrong and as enchanting and fantastical as the film is, the horrors that are allowed to crack through, i.e. the past are presented in an almost palatable tone (incidental music, cinematography) which make them all the more unsettling.
As the unlikely group finally find the town they seek they learn of the true atrocities that occurred and find out a lot about who they really are.
Elijah wood is as authentic as usual, bringing his usual innocence and strength to the screen. Formally a resident good in Lord of the Rings and a resident evil in Sin City he plays Jonathan with aplomb as he is bombarded with culture shocks and a quest for truth. Boris Leskin as the grandfather also delivers his angst and frustration at the youths with great humour and conviction as his own past is unravelled. However, it is Eugene Hutz as Alex that makes the show. The director using that old trade of translation misunderstandings to create and maintain a humour that is actually funny and not gimmicky.
Schreiber has delivered an enchanting debut that has both heart and soul. The continuous score and beautiful photography creates a fairy tale haze around a story about identity, truth and family. If there was a complaint, it would be the speed at which the film changes direction; though this could have been intentional it may not sit well with all. Nevertheless this is a sterling effort that delivers great comedy and bonding between an unlikely group while dissecting another aspect of the horrors of World War 2 in a completely fresh fashion.
I really liked this movie ... but the ads I saw implied, and one
published review actually said, that this movie "benefits from a light
touch." That to me is very misleading.
There is indeed plenty of humor: eccentric, un-subtle, sometimes somewhat twisted humor: the kind of humor I generally find very appealing indeed. But most of the humor is the kind that appears conscious at all times of things deeply serious, deeply sensitive, even deeply painful. The movie weaves together themes of Past and Present, Perception and Truth, Memory and Activity, Life and Death. The entire movie is suffused by the history of European anti-Semiticism in general, and of the Holocaust in particular.
How can Humor and Horror be combined in the same movie? The review I saw suggested that the humor is Absurdist. I don't think this is the case at all; at least not in the common sense. Instead, I think this movie stands in the tradition of much Jewish / Yiddish literature and theatre. I don't claim to be any kind of expert in this area; but from what I've seen, Humor is used, in this cultural context, both as a coping tool for the horribly tragic experiences of this people; and also Humor is used as a means of "recovering the Divine" for men and women who choose a path of Faith rather than a path of either Despair or Absurdism. See "Fiddler on the Roof" for Humor used in both ways in this rich tradition.
Elijah Wood (Jonathon) Wood wears horn rimmed glasses that really make him look, well, strange: compare Sin City when he wore the same kinds of glasses with chilling effect. In this movie, it's easy to see how the glasses become a metaphor for both his Search and for his Struggle between Perception and Truth. Eugene Hutz (Young Alex) and Boris Lesking (Old Alex) are both really just wonderful. Jonathon and Young Alex are from the same generation, yet seem so very, very different; and then find that they are not so different after all. And the way in which the Apparent Narrative Voice changes gradually from that of Jonathon to that of Young Alex .. as a journey of intended discovery for Jonathon becomes one of discovery for both Young Alex and Old Alex ... is to me so very moving.
There are some wonderful scenes and panoramas from (I'm told) Prague and environs, standing in for the Ukraine of the story line. All feels very authentic and seems to give a wonderful sense of place; although I've never been myself to the Ukraine and can hardly testify to this from first hand experience.
All in all, if you're looking for light comedy, I would not recommend this movie at all. On the other hand, if you are interested in a wonderful, delightful, and deeply moving film, please, check out this wonderful movie.
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