Friday, October 14, 2005


EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (2005, USA, Liev Schreiber, Jonathan Safran Foer novel)
Maybe sometimes I'm afraid I'll forget.

Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel had a ton of fans among readers and critics alike, telling the curiously self-referential story of a young man who travels to Ukraine in search of a woman in a photograph who helped his grandfather escape Eastern Europe just ahead of the Nazis. There was an audaciity about the author's combination of wildly inventive verbal humour, bold imaginative strokes and dark Holocaust subject matter that somehow, improbably, worked brilliantly. The film (also a debut, Liev Schreiber's first turn behind the camera) aims for the same brash blend, and if it doesn't achieve the artistic "perfect storm" of the novel, it does tell an important story in a fresh way that may perfectly fit a generation. (The GARDEN STATE of genocide flicks?)

I know a playwright whose holocaust-themed play was recently rejected by a major American theatre: they celebrated the writing, but felt the "holocaust genre" to be "supersaturated." As if this is something we should put behind us. God forbid. Jonathan's wild and crazy Ukranian tour guide, infatuated with all things new, tacky and American, begins the film with just such an attitude: "The past is past." At least that's what he always believed until he encountered The Collector, this young Jewish American (not alone in his inexplicable obsession, it turns out) who's "a compulsive rememberer," gathering the flotsam and jetsam of his life and his family's lives in the plastic bags he carries everywhere.

There is something sacramental in this reverent oblation of mundane objects that's reminiscent of the central moment in American Beauty. Ricky Fitts has filmed a plastic bag caught in a whirlwind in an urban alleyway, a sight whose strange beauty communicated to him the benevolent presence of God: "Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember."

Everything Is Illuminated is a film that doesn't want us to forget. Or perhaps it is a film that wants a new generation to remember – to re-member, if you will, to re-assemble – a past beyond its own personal memory, which nevertheless profoundly shapes its present. Whatever its possible short-comings, this may be a very important film indeed, a story for and about a generation half a century removed from the Holocaust who must come to terms with the horrors of their not-so-distant and not-so-different past – horrors which befell young men and young women not so different than themselves.

Available at Videomatica

Originally published in longer form at Christianity Today Movies


Paul said...

Superb film, with achingly funny opening scenes initially followed by steadily darkening mood. The coincidences do stretch credibility a bit, but hey - real life is crazier than fiction. I wonder if anyone else thought that the prominence of sunflowers was visual reference to Simon Wiesenthals book The Sunflower, which explores the theme of forgiveness in reference to Wiesenthals own experience in Auschwitz?
Paul Thiessen

Ron Reed said...

Great observation. I hadn't thought of that. Wouldn't be surprised. I wonder if they're a feature of the novel?

"The Sunflower" was a really important book for me when I was researching REFUGE OF LIES, and several of its perspectives are reflected in characters in the play. Apparently there's been a new edition published, with essays solicited from more current writers and thinkers. I'd love to have both editions.