Everything is Illuminated (2005) is a superb film that “begins in goofiness and ends in silence and memory” (Roger Ebert). It begins with broad comedy, but zigzags steadily towards a wrenching drama about the connectedness of all humanity and the inescapability of the past. It’s the tale of a man (Elijah Wood) who goes in search of his grandfather’s escape from the Holocaust, and the story of the people who help him find the story, who are mysteriously entangled in the same story. All of these people are odd, and they regard each other with astonishment.
Everything is Illuminated is based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer (who has a cameo in the film — watch for the man with the leaf blower) and adapted for the screen by Liev Schreiber. Schreiber also directed the film. It won awards at a number of film festivals in Europe and South America, but some reviewers felt it did not have the scope of the novel.
The film includes some wonderful performances, particularly that of Eugene Hutz, a Romani (gypsy) musician and actor. His band, Gogol Bordello, performs several pieces on the soundtrack of the film. Elijah Wood, a name much more familiar to filmgoers, performs a remarkable act of tzimtzum [contraction] in taking both a literal and a figurative backseat to the colorful character played by Hutz.
Besides the obvious Holocaust theme, the movie also takes a sharp look at Jewish identity: what does it meant to be a Jew?
Most Holocaust films focus on the tragedy in the 1940’s, without looking at the many tragedies that stem from those initial events. This is a film that takes a hard look at the way that every person touched by the Holocaust is effected by it, even if he or she is born years later. It asks questions about survival: what does it mean, “to survive”? Can a person live through something and not survive it? Can a person die but somehow remain?
Two figures in the film are “collectors.” The film does not explain why they collect things: that is left for the viewer to consider. What do each of them collect? Why do you think they collect them? Do you think they will continue to collect things, after the events in the film?
I was struck by the subtle reference to the Wizard of Oz at the end of the film. Jonathan returns to the states, but as he moves through the modern airport, he recognizes faces that he saw in the Ukraine. What does this mean? Unlike Dorothy, he was not dreaming. How are these people connected to the people he saw overseas? How is he connected to each of them?
Jewish culture puts a high value on Zikkaron, Remembrance. Who is remembering what in this film? What is the value of remembrance?
The screenwriter and director of this film, Liev Schreiber, is an actor in another film on this list, Defiance. Both are films about events connected with the Holocaust, but they deal with it quite differently.
For a slightly different take on the film, check out this blog post.