Thursday, December 10, 2009

Everything Is Illuminated

Day 344 - 12/10/09 - Movie #344

BEFORE: Three weeks left in the year, and I should be on the interwebs, ordering Christmas gifts - but instead I'm wrapping up my World War II themed movies with this one. We move from Poland to the Ukraine, where a man is searching for information about his late grandfather.

THE PLOT: A young Jewish American man endeavors to find the woman who saved his grandfather during World War II in a Ukrainian village, that was ultimately razed by the Nazis, with the help of a local who speaks broken English.

AFTER: Once in a while, not often, I come across a movie that really surprises me, that exceeds my expectations, like "Darjeeling Limited". This is another great example of a little uncut gem of a movie, one that I might never have watched - if not for my list.

It's funny that I was writing about my grandfather last night, because this film is all about grandfathers, and our connections (or lack thereof) to them. The title refers to how "everything is illuminated" by the past, by our experiences and the stories of our parents and grandparents. How many people can't name the town(s) where their grandparents were born? How many people have lost that connection, part of their history, because of war, or time, or lack of interest?

This is based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, and adapted and directed by the actor Liev Schreiber, who did a helluva job. Elijah Wood plays a young writer (also named Jonathan Safran Foer) who has an odd habit of collecting things in small Ziploc bags, and hanging them on a wall next to portraits of family members. Being a collector of sorts myself, I can get behind this guy... But after the death of his grandmother, he realizes that there's a big gap in his collection, relating to the story of his grandfather, Safran, and how he escaped the persecution of Jews in World War II.

So he hires a travel guide to take him to the location of his grandfather's village in the Ukraine - but gets stuck with the guide's teenage son and elderly father driving him around, looking for a village that no one seems to remember. The young guide, Alex, is a tall, lanky wigger who likes wearing chains and dressing like an American rapper - like Vanilla Ice, talking like Borat. And the grandfather is a cantankerous sort who claims to be blind (he isn't) and has a "seeing-eye bitch" dog named Sammy Davis Jr., Jr. who is "mentally deranged".

Jonathan is seen as a very unusual person - not just because of his huge Coke-bottle glasses, but also his lost puppy-dog demeanor, his vegetarianism, and his odd habit of saving things in little baggies. I sort of went through this myself, when I went to Germany on a high-school exchange trip. I looked up some of my grandmother's relatives, and sat in a cafe and spoke with them for a few hours. When my great-aunt learned that I couldn't swim, this baffled her - she was threatening to buy me a swimsuit and throw me into the Rhine river so I'd learn to swim...

What starts out as a lost-cause road trip turns into a journey of self-discovery for all three men. Saying what they find along the way, and how it affects them, would give away the plot - but they all manage to connect with their heritage in very profound ways. I get the feeling that if I were to watch the film again, I'd notice all kinds of symbolism that I didn't see before - like the grandfather's "blindness" meaning that he is blind to his own cultural heritage, and that's just one example...

It's also a "fish-out-of-water" story that highlights the cultural differences between Old World Europe and today's America. But as Jonathan and Alex spend time together, naturally their similarities are highlighted and their differences are minimized. When Jonathan returns to the U.S., he sees people in the airport who look EXACTLY like some of the people he met in the Ukraine. This is no "Wizard of Oz" hey-I-guess-it-was-all-a-dream moment, it's more of a symbolic realization that people are basically the same wherever you go - as well as a sign that his journey to Europe has caused him to look at the world in a different way.

Yes, it's the places that we go, and the people that we meet along the way, that help us define our story. But we should never forget that it's the stories of our parents and grandparents that determined where our own stories started.

RATING: 8 out of 10 packs of Marlboro cigarettes (very premium!)

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