Redemption in Ukraine

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Review of 'Everything is Illuminated', director Liev Screiber

Everything is Illuminated unravels a tale of how the past locates itself in the present, and does so with terrific humour, charm and affection. It is based on a novel of the same name which comprises three narrative pieces - two novels in progress and a collection of letters that link those novels. The film takes the form of a road movie, and uses skilful and subtle visual cues to do the same thing.

Initially we meet a young Jewish boy, Jonathan (Elijah Wood in po-faced Clark Kent form), living in the US, who collects memorabilia from his family life in order to give him some sense of permanence. He collects these trinkets in plastic snappy bags and hangs them on his bedroom wall - by the time he is an adult the room has come to resemble a museum. One photo in particular entrances him. It is of his grandfather as a young man, photographed in his native Ukraine with a beautiful young woman. Told that this woman is responsible for saving his family from the Nazis, he determines to find her and thank her.

His search takes him to Ukraine, where we meet the family of the fantastically funny Alex Perchov. From then on the lives of the characters, past and present, begin to merge and collide into one another.

Alex, unlike his rather prudish counterpart Jonathan, likes dancing and partying, and is a big fan of black American culture. His idiosyncratic English provides some really funny dialogue. This contrasts with his mostly mute, blind and grumpy grandfather who is the driver on the trip, aided by the fourth main character, the 'seeing-eye bitch' Sammy Davis Junior Junior - a dog. Together they set off in an ancient Soviet-produced car in search of the small shtetl of Trachimbrod - the ancestral home village of Jonathan's grandfather.

The countryside is beautiful and timeless. Odd remnants of the former Soviet Union remain - damaged and abandoned buildings, corroded warnings of nuclear contamination - but no signposts to the Jewish village they are looking for, and nobody they meet on the way is willing or able to locate it.

Alex, unlike Jonathan, demonstrates an astonishing lack of awareness about the past, and although he shows a willingness to confront his country's history and learn about the anti-Semitism Jonathan describes (the reason why none of his American family will return to visit), the grandfather aggressively rejects all questions about what has gone before. Those memories have been obliterated and disguised, and the past has faded into endless fields.

But as the journey progresses changes begin to happen. Doubts begin to rise in Alex's mind about his grandfather and the role he played in the war. But those doubts are played out in unexpected ways as the story unfolds, and we come to realise why it is that the only object of the old man's affection is his dog, Sammy Davis Junior Junior, named after 'the most famous black Jew in the US'.

This is a beautiful film more about reconciliation and redemption than blame, about the universality of working class experience, and about the liberation and enlightenment we gain in learning from history.