Sunday, January 18, 2009

Everything is illuminated in the light of the past...

An anti-Semitic grandfather and his fervent grandson Alex are told to escort a young American Jew, named Jonathan Safran Foer, through the Ukrainian countryside to find Trachimbrod: a place no longer existing on the map and where most of the villagers were liquidated by the Nazis. Jonathan (played by Elijah Wood) intends to learn about a woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The car used for the trip has “Heritage tour” written on the top of it. Alex’s grandpa drives the car, and Alex occasionally translates grandpa’s effusions to Jonathan who sits at the back with Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (a dog…bitch to be precise). So begins Everything is illuminated: a journey that follows through the Ukrainian landscape towards a bitter past.

The story is narrated by Alex, in his broken English and gestures assumed from American pop culture. Played by Eugene Hutz, Alex is really amusing. The character of his grandpa is also interesting and watchable throughout. The humor during the first half of the film arises due to the idiosyncrasies of the characters. Jonathan has a curious habit of collection things, “family things” as he says. He keeps small plastic bags with him all the time, and whenever he finds something curious or striking, he puts it in one of his bags. He calls himself a collector. He collects because he is afraid that he will forget. There is a conversation between Alex and Jonathan, which I don’t clearly remember, but it goes something like this…

Alex: Father informs me that you are a writer.
Jonathan: Not really… I am more of a collector
Alex: What do you collect?
Jonathan: things… family things.
Alex: It is a good profession, yes?
Jonathan: No, it is not a profession. It is something I do.
Alex: why?
Jonathan: I don’t know. It’s just something I do… I mean, why does anyone do anything?
Alex (looking confused for a while suddenly says with a smile): I understand!

Their interactions are amusing and add to the flow of the film. The humor starts diluting as the journey progresses. They go through curious situations, which I better leave untold. After tiresome search they reach a field of sunflowers and at the heart of the field is a small house. Something occurs to Alex’s grandpa and he tells “check here”. It is a stunning view, like Alex’s grandfather even the viewer will feel that something must be there; that maybe this is the place where the journey is supposed to end.
Alex finds an old woman sitting outside the house, and he asks her the whereabouts of Trachimbrod. She replies “I am it”.
They have reached Trachimbrod. Though the place was destroyed by Nazis, the old woman has preserved Trachimbrod in her house, which is full to the brim with things belonging to the people who were killed. Like Alex, she is also a collector. Having known about holocaust only through films and literature, I wonder how painful it must have been for those who share a similar history. While watching the film’s last sequence where the characters go to the place where once Trachimbrod used to be, I was reminded of Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist. It was about a Jew’s struggle to escape Nazi Germany (though he escapes in the end, it is not dealt with triumph but with loss). Polanski too had lost his parents in holocaust, and The Pianist was constantly reminding me that if someone has survived, it is because of nothing else but chance. Everything is Illuminated looks like an extension of The Pianist, where the third generation of the one who survived returns to the place where it happened unearthing series of poignant revelations. Each revelation brings an illumination....
The film ends with a tragedy and Alex's conclusion “Everything is illuminated in the light of the past. It is always along the side of us, on the inside, looking out”.


Madhuri said...

Thanks for the suggestion - finally saw the movie. It was pleasantly surprising to see a light-hearted approach to a theme which is very onerous. I enjoyed Alex's English, and the conversations between him and Jonafen.

jigar said...

I knew you'd like the film since the theme interests you.

I got to watch 'The Reader' yesterday. It was a touching/poignant tale; though I haven't read the book, I could relate to the emotional states of the characters. Winslet gives a good performance. I think you will like this film too.