"An Offbeat Search for Family History"
EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED follows young New Yorker Jonathan Safran Foer as he travels to the Ukraine to find the woman who helped his grandfather escape the Nazis in World War II.
Jonathan is an obsessive collector. His apartment walls are covered in artifacts, each item slipped inside a Ziploc bag and tacked to the wall. The artifacts are all taken from the lives of his family members, including strange reminders like dentures, necklaces, half-eaten food, dirt, and plain old photographs. One photograph – of his grandfather and a woman Jonathan doesn’t know – sparks his trip to the Ukraine. Jonathan wants to see the place where he might live if his Jewish grandfather had stayed despite the Nazis. He also wants to thank the woman who helped his family get to America.
Jonathan hires a service that specializes in helping Jewish Americans locate their family heritage in the Ukraine. His guides are, politely, idiosyncratic: a driver who thinks he’s blind; and, his dilettante, Michael Jackson-obsessed grandson. The three of them drive across the country looking for a town that seems to no longer exist. There is tension and cultural misunderstanding, as the Ukrainians can’t understand why anyone would choose to be a vegetarian or why they should not use the word “negro” to refer to African-Americans.
The tour guides aren’t truly racist against African-Americans, but the grandfather is strongly anti-Semitic, which is of increasing importance as Jonathan tracks down Jewish history in the region. In the end, the grandfather understands the emotional price he paid for harboring that kind of hatred.
The title is repeated in one line: “Everything is illuminated in the light of the past.” That is Jonathan’s hope, and it happens. By understanding his place in world and family history, he will not be able to think selfishly. The movie presents families as being bound up together, locked in the same struggle, so to act selfishly would be to cut yourself off from the greater whole. This conception of the strong family unit is clearly influenced by teachings in the Old Testament, or, in its Jewish context, the Torah.
Some mildly strange or unbelievable events occur, but ILLUMINATED does not label them coincidences. The world seems intelligently ordered, which is a sign of God’s creation. This, too, adheres with the Jewish faith that seems to undergird the movie.
Not everyone will enjoy EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED. It moves at an intentionally stilted pace and gives almost no exposition or background. The payoff is dramatic but requires some assimilating and discussing to fully appreciate.
Some of the material is presented as too cute or “wacky,” which suggests that first-time director Schreiber did not have a perfect grasp of the clever, innovative novel on which the movie is based. Early exchanges between Jonathan and his tour guides come off like cheap jokes about cultural differences, more like an episode of “Perfect Strangers” than a respectable drama. The final act smoothes out the movie’s wrinkles, however, and plays out very nicely.
Talk of the Holocaust, including some brief images of corpses, a suicide and some foul language, are content considerations. Also, the movie contains some light sexual content. For instance, teenagers look at a pornographic magazine, but no obscene images are shown. This content requires an extreme caution. Overall, however, EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED is an extremely subtle, interesting movie that makes a nice entry into the more sedate fall movie season.
(BB, LL, V, S, M) Strong Biblical worldview with an ordered, sensible universe, an understanding of the biblical view of family, and a man who refuses to desecrate the Torah even while being tortured; 12 obscenities, including dog repeatedly referred to as a “bitch,” one profanity, and one racial epithet said by someone who does not understand the word’s significance; father slaps son at dinner table, grandfather hits grandson after boy hits a dog, flashback to a pile of corpses that Nazis had killed, and a suicide; teenagers look at porn magazine, but no obscene images are shown, and light sexual reference; no alcohol; cigarettes used as payment but no smoking; and, ex-Nazi commits suicide after meeting a victim, and anti-Semitism is rebuked.
EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED follows young Jewish New Yorker Jonathan as he travels to the Ukraine to find the woman who helped his grandfather escape the Nazis in World War II. Jonathan hires a service to take him through the country. The guides turn out to be idiosyncratic, including a driver who thinks he’s blind. They drive across the country looking for a town that seems to no longer exist. The title means that “Everything is illuminated in the light of the past.” As Jonathan understands his place in world and family history, he finds that he is bound to his family, locked in their struggles.
This conception of the strong family unit is clearly influenced by teachings in the Old Testament, or, in its Jewish context, the Torah. The movie sees the world as intelligently ordered, which is a sign of God’s creation. Though subtle and provocative, the movie contains some foul language, discussion and brief images about the Holocaust, and light sexual content. Aside from that, some will not enjoy EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED. It gives little exposition or background, and the payoff is dramatic but requires some assimilating and discussing to fully appreciate.