Saturday, September 17, 2005


(Special Presentations) USA, 100 minutes
Written by: Liev Schreiber, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer
Directed by: Liev Schreiber
Cast: Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Leskin

A wonderfully entertaining and emotional adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s best-selling novel, “Everything Is Illuminated” is actor Liev Schreiber’s first outing behind the camera and, despite his protestations at the screening I attended, is hopefully not his last.

Not being familiar with Foer’s work I had no expectations for this film. Due to budget limitations, Schreiber decided to focus on the novel’s “road trip” story, in which a fictionalized Foer (Elijah Wood) travels to the Ukraine in search of the woman he believes saved his grandfather from the Nazis during World War II. A fastidious collector of his family’s mementos and memories, Wood’s Jonathan seems at first to be a distant, withdrawn blank slate. But as the story progresses he shows remarkable resilience and determination, as well as a depth of emotion mostly shown through Wood’s bright blue eyes, magnified here by thick glasses. As Schreiber said in the Q&A after the screening, “If the eyes are the passageways to the soul, Elijah has garage doors.”

Jonathan is accompanied on his journey by an energetic and somewhat smarmy guide and translator named Alexei, played by Ukrainian folk/punk performer Eugene Hutz. Alexei seems to represent a new generation of Eastern Europe, leaving behind the stale bureaucracy of the former Communist regimes for the flash of Western culture. Driving the rather dilapidated car is Alexei’s grandfather (Alexei Sr., played by Boris Leskin), who claims to be blind, as well as his “righteous seeing-eye bitch,” a funny little mutt named Sammy Davis Jr., Jr. As the three journey to the lost town of Trachimbrod, the past and the present come together in unexpected and poignant ways, showing how even 60 years after its end, the events of the Second World War still have resonance and impact.

“Everything Is Illuminated” may have left out some of the novel’s more epic elements -- such as an extensive imaginary history of Trachimbrod – but I can’t say that this decision detracts from the film at all. Its humor, warmth and deep affection for its characters, coupled with lovely cinematography and a lively soundtrack, make it worthwhile. It seems to have been shortchanged as far as a theatrical release, but hopefully can find an audience on video when the time comes.