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There aren’t very many debut directorial efforts by actors that make their mark on the moviegoing public. For every Redford, whose Ordinary People won him best picture and director at the Oscars, you get a handful of Mel Gibsons, whose debut The Man Without a Face just didn’t hold the weight that Braveheart and The Passion later would. Not since maybe George Clooney have I really enjoyed a debut effort with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind in 2002. Last year in 2005, however, Liev Schreiber, always a favorite of mine, gave us the funny, heartwarming film Everything is Illuminated. He adapted the novel by author Jonathan Safran Foer himself and with only Elijah Wood starwise and a small indie budget made one of the best films that year had to offer.

Our protagonist uses the name of our author, Foer, and starts a search to find out about the one family member he had few real recollections about. A woman named Augustine in the now unknown village of Trochenbrod, Ukraine, saved his grandfather during WWII and Foer was desperate to learn about him and to see if the woman was still alive. He decides to travel the country with a translator and tour guide in order to find the town and collect memories of the place his ancestors were from. Schreiber deftly balances this somber and sentimental journey with fantastic bits of comedy as well as some truly touching moments. Our interesting caravan’s translator and guide are Alex Perchov and his grandfather respectively, two highly entertaining characters. Alex, much like a Borat-type character, speaking in broken English and asking numerous questions to his new America traveler, really gives the film its heart. His naivety to outside culture creates humorous situations yet also helps show how little Foer knows about Ukrainan culture and that of his Polish grandfather in turn. Alex’s grandfather is a volatile old man who eventually grows and learns a kind of respect for being alive and well, an interesting evolution for a man who at the beginning insisted he was blind. So, in fact the American’s journey of heritage becomes a pilgrimage for all involved, including deranged little Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., Alex’s grandfather’s “officious seeing-eye bitch.”

There are many “indie” moments in Everything is Illuminated. We are shown many situations that include quirky characters doing quirky things. Elijah Wood, as Foer, has a very deliberate way about him, going through life collecting objects that cross him on his way. Much like an insect collector will pin his creatures in a display box, Foer pins his objects in Ziploc bags to the wall of his home. His many eccentricities—not eating meat/afraid of dogs/etc—lend a jumping point for funny interchanges between our main characters, yet these moments never feel forced. Give credit to Schreiber for being able to allow his actors to slowly move along and progress the story at a speed he set. Especially impressive is the fact he was able to do it with many Polish and Russian actors who have not been in many films. One could even argue that the real star here is Alex who had never dramatically acted before. Yes, Eugene Hutz has the stage presence from fronting a band for many years, however, it is still amazing that he is able to give such an immediate and soulful performance. With all his moments of comedy gold, it is in scenes like trying to ask directions from construction workers and interacting with his oppressive grandfather that really show a vulnerability and sense of humanity to his role.

I also need to point out the beautiful visuals onscreen throughout. The cinematography is gorgeous with many vast expanses of countryside. A scene showing the path to an isolated house amongst giant sunflowers is fantastic as well as the more enclosed shots like that of the many boxes contained of the lost Trochenbrod peoples. Even the camera angles are always inventive and adding to the mood of the piece. Complementing the landscapes of Ukraine is the landscape of Boris Leskin’s worn face as Alex’s grandfather. What originally was contorted in anger and ambivalence to anyone but his dog soon becomes saddened by pain and remembrance, but eventually turns to acceptance and thanks for all that he has been able to endure during his life. After all the yelling and abuse he gives his grandson throughout, one of the best moments is towards the end when he lovingly puts his hand to Alex’s face. In that moment you can truly see the love they have for each other through his tear-filled eyes. It is the revelation of the grandfather’s secret that has been bottled inside him for decades which really makes the movie and shows us the many connections between the Perchovs and Foers. Jonathan Foer is just the vessel needed to begin the course of events we are shown in Everything is Illuminated. The real tale is that of family and that no matter how close you are in proximity to each other, you can still be miles apart.

Everything is Illuminated 9/10

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photography:
[1] Eugene Hutz is Alex, Elijah Wood is Jonathan and Boris Leskin is Grandfather in director Liev Schreiber’s EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED, a Warner Independent Pictures release. Photo credit: Neil Davidson. © 2005 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
[2] Eugene Hutz is Alex in director Liev Schreiber’s EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED, a Warner Independent Pictures release. Photo credit: Neil Davidson. © 2005 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

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