Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Everything is Illuminated

I remember clutching my grandmother's original engagement ring, knowing that I would present it to my bride-to-be. The ring was over seventy years old. It was a beauty with its regal pearl firmly set atop a silver band. I thought on all the years it had seen and survived; the stories it could tell. An inanimate object. Something that will one day turn to dust. Maybe I'm over personifying, but it had lived long enough to represent familial bonding, love, committment. It sometimes seemed as if it would audibly cry out in joy. The mere sight of it an evocation of powerful emotions.

2005's EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED features a young Jewish man named Jonathan Foer, named after the author of the book of the same name. He seems a bit off. Something about his aloofness, his cautiousness in even his posture. Perhaps those suspicions are confirmed as first-time director Liev Schrieber's camera pulls back to reveal a wall in Jonathan's room, covered floor to ceiling with a myriad of objects in plastic bags. We spy them long enough to discern that they are keepsakes, pieces of the boy's life. All with stories to tell. A scene or two later, Jonathan sits by his grandmother on her deathbed. He asks her about the significance of someone named Augustine after she hands him a photograph of his grandfather and the mysterious woman. The grandmother sighs and then passes on. Jonathan bags the false teeth she had left on her nightstand.

Years earlier, the boy had stood by his grandfather's deathbed, eventually taking his bedside curiosity - a chunk of amber containing a cricket. As he currently examines the photograph, he notices the woman is wearing the amber on a necklace. He will retrieve the artifact for his trip to Russia - a pilgrimage to a place once known as Trachimbrod- to learn of his heritage and what of the significance of Augustine.

Once in the Ukraine, Jonathan (Elijah Wood) meets up with Alex (Eugene Hütz), a youth obsessed with American popular culture, and his crotchety, anti-Semitic grandfather (Boris Leskin), the tour guide. EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED continues in a comedic vein, with the American having a real time of it adjusting to life in Russia (a dinner scene is especially amusing), and dealing with his 2 cranky travelmates. There's also a dog belonging to the grandfather called Sammy Davis Jr., Jr. The grandfather is horrified to learn that the namesake singer was Jewish.

The film gradually becomes more serious, though never overly somber, as the men get closer to their destination. An elderly woman who has much in common with Jonathan and, it turns out, with Alex's grandfather figures prominently in the final passages of EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED. The significance of seemingly trivial tchotchkes will beautifully render Schrieber's film quietly crushing. The essence of identity is also significant, perhaps even stronger, from opening to closing, with some late hour revelations about one character the anchor of not only the story, but larger themes writer Foer probes. Are we only what others remember? Is a piece of ceramic or the like the only tangible evidence of who we were? What if we were misrepresented? Only God can know.

Schrieber, better known as an actor, apparently diverts from the original novel but in ways that utilize irony not for post-modern humor, but to underline Foer's points. He manages the shifts in tone quite smoothly; we are more than ready for the film to dispense with the comedy (well done as it is) and reveal the layers of the characters' pasts. EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED at first seems slight but as it develops in your thoughts, it becomes weightier and even important. This is not a Holocaust downer like THE DAMNED or SOPHIE'S CHOICE, but rather an elegant little play that, once viewed, will have you looking twice (and perhaps more pointedly) at your grandfather's wristwatch. Or your aunt's tea cup. Or even a chunk of amber.
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