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Back in the USSR: Everything is Illuminated Film Review

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

"Everything is Illuminated" (2005) is based on the first-time novel by Jewish-American writer Jonathan Saffron Foyer (2001), and it came out a time when I personally was reading about and travelling to Ukraine widely. It resonated quite deeply with me because it's a film which, more than any other I can think of, captures the spirit and atmosphere of the country, especially the rural west of the country where the heart and soul of Ukraine really reside. It touches on history, geography, pop music and hip-hop culture, magical realism, obsessive collecting and travel. It is shot through with hope, despair and humour. It is a film which should be seen to get a glimpse of what Ukraine is, and what Ukrainians are like. The book on which it is based is also well worth reading. Director Liev Schreiber has called it his favourite film, although he directed it when he was just 38. His own maternal grandmother had fled the horrors of famine and war in 30s Ukraine, so he was deeply connected with the subject matter.

"Everything is Illuminated" begins in goofiness and ends in silence and memory. How it gets from one to the other is the subject of the film, a journey undertaken by three men and a dog into the secrets of the past. The movie is narrated by Alex (Eugene Hutz), better known as lead singer of gypsy folk-punk band Gogol Bordello, a Ukrainian whose family specializes in "tours of dead Jews." Alex and his grandfather (also named Alex) drive American Jews in search of their roots to the places where many of their ancestors died.

The trip through a bewildering but beautiful western Ukrainian countryside involves a Soviet-era car that may not exactly have air bags. The grandfather is the driver, although he claims to be blind and insists on going everywhere with his "seeing eye bitch," whose name is Sammy Davis Junior Junior. Alex's English seems learned from a thesaurus that was one word off. He tortures words to force them into sentences from which they try to escape, and keeps a journal with chapters like Overture to the Commencement of a Very Rigid Search.

The movie's hero is Jonathan (Elijah Wood), a solemn, goggle-eyed American known as "The Collector" because he accumulates bits and pieces of his life and stores them in Ziploc bags, carefully labeled. He has come to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather's life. To this woman is due much gratitude, because Jonathan's grandmother passed along the belief that the Ukraine treated Jews so badly that if the Nazis invaded, it might be an improvement. The opening hour or so is a weirdly hilarious comedy, based on the intractable nature of Grandfather (Boris Leskin), his fierce love for Sammy Davis Junior Junior, and his truce with his grandson, who idolizes American popular culture, especially Michael Jackson. When Jonathan tells him Sammy Davis Jr. the First was Jewish, he is astonished: "What about Michael Jackson?" No, says Jonathan, definitely not Michael Jackson.

There is much ''perplexion'' (the kind of word the younger Alex savors) that Jonathan is a vegetarian, and in a hotel dining room he is told potatoes do not, cannot, have never, come without meat. He is finally served one boiled potato, in a scene that develops as if Chaplin had been involved. Then he goes to his room, a narrow single bed in the midst of vast emptiness. Alex advises him to lock his door: "There are many dangerous people who would try to steal things from Americans and also kidnap them." The journey continues. Sammy Davis Junior Junior begins to love Jonathan. Grandfather speaks like a crusty anti-Semite, Alex covers for him in his translation, and nobody seems to have heard of the hamlet of Trachimbrod, which they seek. Then abruptly the grandfather steers off the highway and into the middle of nowhere, and they find a beautiful white-haired old woman (Laryssa Lauret) living in a house in the middle of a field surrounded by sunflowers, who simply says, "You are here. I am it."

The novel by Jonathan Safran Foer includes many more scenes from the distant past, including some of magic realism in the 18th century Ukrainian Jewish community. The film dispenses with these scenes for the sake of brevity, and in truth the book shines in those moments, so it makes it worth the effort for those who are inspired by the film. "Everything is Illuminated" the film lives in the present, except for memories and enigmatic flashbacks to the Second World War. The gift that Schreiber brings to the material is his ability to move us from the broad satire of the early scenes to the solemnity of the final ones. The first third of the film could be inspired by Fellini, the last third by Bergman's darkest hours.

I described Jonathan as the hero of the film, but perhaps he is too passive to be a hero. He regards. He collects. Alex is the active character, cheerfully inventing English as he goes along, making the best of the journey's hardships, humoring his grandfather, telling the rich American what he wants to hear. Eugene Hutz, afore-mentioned gypsy-punk singer, brings notes of early John Turturro to the performance. Elijah Wood's performance is deliberately narrow and muted - pitch-perfect, although there is a distraction caused by his oversized eyeglasses so thick they make his eyes huge. He visits, he witnesses, he puts things in zip-lock bags.

Then again, perhaps the real hero of the film is the grandfather, unless by default it is the old lady, who is a Collector, too. For Grandfather, this is as much a journey of discovery as it is for Jonathan, and the changes that take place within him are all the more profound for never once being referred to in his dialogue. He never discusses his feelings or his memories, but in a way he is the purpose of the whole trip. The conclusion he draws from it is illustrated in an image that, in context, speaks more eloquently than words.

''Everything is Illuminated" is a film that grows on reflection. The first time I saw it, I was convinced it was a rather silly ethnic comedy which suddenly entered dark and dangerous territory. I admired the film but did not sufficiently appreciate its arc. I watched it again, feeling that I had missed something, had been distracted by Jonathan's eyeglasses and other relative ''irrelevancements'' (as Alex might say). The second time, I was more aware of the journey Schreiber was taking us on, and why it is necessary to begin where he begins in order to get where he's going.

Art of Budget Travel Rating: ****

See the film here.


If you are curious about Eugene Hutz, who is something of a renaissance man, check out this gig review of his raucous band Gogol Bordello from 2009. They are still going strong, still wearing purple and still opposing Nazis with great vigour.

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