Title: Everything is Illuminated
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: Liev Schreiber
Screenwriters: Liev Schreiber
Starring: Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Lyoskin
Everything is Illuminated creates an alternate universe within our own, a fantasy world informed by and drawing power from things that move and affect us where we live. It is fanciful and absurd, with jokes that range from the exploitation of cultural stereotypes to meta gags right out of a Mel Brooks movie to inexplicable quirks that would be at home in something by Jim Jarmusch, but the humor is tinged with a sadness that becomes more palpable the longer we watch. The offbeat story ultimately coalesces into a message about the unyielding force of the history, but in the best tradition of classic mood pieces, the real power of the film is in the eyes of the characters, in the stunning field of sunflowers that makes its appearance in the third act, in a simple four-word question asked in the climactic scene.
Oh, and it’s in Russian. Well, mostly. It’s an American movie, filmed in Prague, directed by the American Liev Schreiber and starring American actor Elijah Wood. And yet considerably more than half of the film is written and performed in clean, colloquial Russian and, more surprisingly still, a large portion of the film’s humor stems from the use of the language and doesn’t really translate through the accurate but pedestrian and direct English subtitles. Schreiber gets the sole screenwriter’s credit on the film, which suggests that there was a translation process; it’s really quite impressive if that’s the case.
So I wonder if, knowing Russian, I saw a different movie from those who do not. Surely many of the laughs come from the reactions of the Ukranian “heritage tour guides” to their hapless, confused American customer (Wood), and there are nuances there that couldn’t possibly have been brought across. This would seem to leave me in a bind — how do I recommend the film to those who won’t be able to help but miss some of its greatest pleasures?
But recommend it I do, and enthusiastically; it’s a very good film regardless of your capacity for Russian. The protagonist, Jonathan Foer, is introduced as a “collector” who obsessively catalogues anything and everything having to do with his family; he’s also taken to wearing a suit at all times. As would ordinarily befit a movie as oddball like this, Jonathan could have been a complete cipher, existing solely to be strange, his quirks defining him entirely (Napoleon Dynamite comes to mind). And indeed, when we first see Elijah Wood as Jonathan, he barely looks human, his face supernaturally white, his eyes making movements and contortions that no human eyes should ever have to make. But as the movie proceeds, and Jonathan travels to Ukraine to find the woman in a picture given to him by his dying grandmother, we see that Jonathan is a reasonable, kind, intelligent, even normal person. At the beginning of the film he may just be a weirdo, but by the end, he is considerably more.
The same can be said for Alex (Eugene Hutz), who, along with his grandfather, is Jonathan’s reluctant guide around Ukranian back country. The character is somewhat of a gimmick, narrating much of the film in the sort of heavily accented English that you might expect if you plug Russian phrases into a computer translator (though occasionally this results in turns of phrase that have a certain poetic beauty, such as the description of Alex’s father “retrieving his fist from the left side of my face”). It’s very funny, but there’s also a charm to Alex, and we get a real sense of his personality and his relationship with his grandfather.
Everything is Illuminated is a rebuke to the school of thought that asserts verisimilitude as a necessary condition for truth. Schreiber’s is a fantasy world, but the very quirks and oddities that give it its fantastic quality also ultimately form the brunt of its emotional impact. The finale, in which the present collides with the past in the middle of a stunning sunflower farm, has a force far beyond what the elements of the film might suggest, and if the denoument goes on too long, Schreiber might be forgiven his indulgence. There’s a message and a point to Everything is Illuminated, but its real joy is in the details, in the way the things that make it funny are also the very things that make it heartbreaking.