International Writers Magazine:DVD Reviews
Directed by Liev Schreiber
Jonathan Safran Foer (novel)
Liev Schreiber (screenplay)
Is Illuminated was a surprise 2002 hit novel by Jonathan Safran
Foer, which was a thinly veiled fictional account of his 1999
trip to Ukraine to research his Jewish roots during World War
The young author,
only twenty-five at the books release, elicits a widely divergent
critical range of opinion- from hyperbolic praise by established hack
writers like Joyce Carol Oates, to outright condemnation by young, unpublished
hacks who resent his two book, half a million dollar publishing deal.
Never having heard of the writer before, and never having read his work,
I had no idea of all this when I picked up the 2005 film version of
his book, starring ex-Hobbit Elijah Wood as Foer, and directed by actor
Liev Schreiber, his first time behind the camera. What I saw was a truly
great, but little, film. More than being simply great, though, the film
is, by far, the best fictional film ever made about Jewish suffering
during the Final Solution of the Nazi reign of terror in Europe, during
World War Two. It achieves this apogee with a deft mix of comedy and
drama that is reminiscent of the best of Charlie Chaplin, yet shorn
of the worst elements of that Masters sentimentality.
How much of this is due to Foers book, and how much due to the
sterling script, penned by Schreiber, I do not know, but the acting
is nothing short of spectacular, all around, starting with Wood as Jonathan.
He is an obsessive collector, because he fears forgetting his past,
and puts all sorts of things in plastic bags. Yet the space for his
recently deceased grandfather is bare. All he has of him is a piece
of jewelry and an old photo with a woman who hid his grandfather from
the Nazis that his grandmother gives him. Jonathan decides to travel
to Odessa, Ukraine to find the woman, thank her for saving his ancestor,
and learn more about his grandfathers former life.
Once there he becomes dependent upon a family, that runs tours of the
homeland for wealthy Diasporic Jews, which includes Alex Perchov, Jr.
(Eugene Hutz), who is obsessed with black gangsta culture, and Negroes
like Michael Jackson, and his grandfather (Boris Leskin), a hypochondriac
who thinks hes blind, and who hates Jews. Grandpa also owns a
psychotic little female pooch, oddly called Sammy Davis, Jr. Jr., after
his own favorite performer, who acts as his seeing eye bitch.
This trio dominates the first 70% of the movie, looking for the lost
shtetl of Trachimbrod, and it is a flat out hilarious road movie, dealing
with Anti-Semitism, basketball, break dancing, and vegetarianism, among
many other things. Perhaps the funniest scene comes when Alex tries
to explain to his little brother, while looking at a porno mag, what
a 69 is, and claims that its called that because the sexual position
was invented in 1969.
After a series of misadventures in the countryside, they arrive at a
small home, out in the Ukrainian backcountry, surrounded by a large
field of sunflowers, and Grandpa somehow knows this is near Trachimbrod.
Alex asks the old lady (Laryssa Lauret) who lives there if she knows
where Trachimbrod is. At first, she demurs, but then she relents. She
too is a collector, and she straightens out some of Jonathans
misconceptions about the past, in general, and his specifically - mainly
that her sister Augustine was the girl who saved Jonathans grandfather.
She leads the others to a river, where the town of Trachimbrod once
stood, and we find out that in 1942 1024 Jews were shot to death by
the Nazi hordes, and that Alexs Grandpa was one of them, but he
survived, dropped his religion, and changed his name. The old woman
was a young girl who came upon Grandpa, after a massacre, and said nothing
when he left, thus saving his life.
Yet, only the audience sees this, in Grandpas reflection. It turns
out that the visit to the memorial triggers all sorts of internal reactions
in the old man, and on the trios return trip to Odessa, Grandpa
suddenly slits his wrists in a bathtub, and bleeds to death overnight.
Alex discovers him, and he and Jonathan just keep going. Both of the
young men are changed, and forever connected, as each occupies a place,
now, in the others past. The film ends with both Jonathan and
Alex at the graves of their grandfathers, with Alex, apparently having
figured out that he and his clan are Jews, after all. This is the only
contrived moment in the film, for we are never let on to how Alex figured
out why Grandpa did himself in, for even Alexs voiceover at films
end manifests his confusion over Grandpas motives.
Wood, as said, is very good, as the far too phobic lead, but Hutz,
as Alex, and Leskin, as Grandpa, are simply magnificent in their delicate
blend of comedy and pathos. Lauret also shines brightly as the old woman.
The cinematography of Matthew Libatique (of Requiem For A Dream
infamy) is also, at times, dazzling, making the Czech Republics
countryside, where the film was shot, as beautiful as any place ever
portrayed in film. The musical scoring by Paul Cantelon is never overbearing,
which is the sign of a good job, for it does not guide the viewer, it
merely complements what the images portray, especially when non-Klezmer.
Unfortunately, there is no commentary on this DVD. One with Foer, Schreiber,
and Wood would have been great, and one with Hutz even better. There
are some deleted scenes and a trailer, but otherwise its a very
bare bones DVD.
This film succeeds where god-awful epics like Schindlers List
fail precisely because it mixes in the funny with the horrid, and does
not dwell on the pornography of death that many in the business of prostituting
the Holocaust and its dead millions rely on. The death of an individual,
in this film, is far more affecting than Spielbergs anonymous
bodycount. The viewer, who is smart enough, can multiply that by the
millions to himself. Seeing the old lady is a collector of the things
of the dead, too, is a powerful way to evoke not just the deads
bodies, but their lives and desires, the essence of the human far truer
than flesh and blood. Another positive of the film is that it does not
tie all things up in a neat bow, and is thus more real than many such
films that have to spoonfeed their audiences. Save for Alexs end
conversion to Judaism, all these loose ends emotionally fit, so to speak.
Fans of the book complain that the illumination at the novels
end is that Alexs grandfather was a Gentile who finked out his
Jewish friend to the Nazis to save his own family. This would explain
Grandpas suicide a bit better than believing that he felt some
survivors guilt, when the film makes him a Jew. Yet, since the
film ends realistically, without answering all questions, the suicide
fits neatly into that spectrum, thus leavening the discrepancy. And,
be that as it may, films always have to change things in books, and
the films revelations are no less devastating, and more realistic,
especially if youve never read the book, so the argument fails.
The film does not. It entertains, enlightens, and leaves a viewer wanting
more. This is what all art should do.
© Dan Schneider, June 2006
The Best in Poetica seeks great poems & essays!
See also NINE
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibiltiy
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.