Liev Schreiber exhibits a masterful control of tone and character in this quirky film that shifts seamlessly from quirky ethnic slapstick to something more transcendentally elegiac. Everything is Illuminated holds its secrets close until the end without cheating the audience at all.
The film begins with Jonathan Safran Foer (Elijah Wood) at his grandmother’s deathbed, where he receives a picture of his grandfather, Safran, as a young man with an unknown young woman. Jonathan is a collector, hording little pieces of his family’s lives. He may a bit obsessive compulsive in the same way that Shaquille O’Neal is slightly above average in height. This part of the film is told in the self-consciously quirky style that sinks a lot of lesser independent films, but fortunately the film shifts tone before trying our patience.
The scene shifts to Odessa in the Ukraine, where we meet the family of Alex Perchov (Eugene Hutz). His grandfather, also named Alex (Boris Leskin), is a crusty curmudgeon who runs a business helping “rich American Jews” find their dead relatives, which is a curious career choice for someone who appears to be conspicuously anti-Semitic. The old man feigns blindness for reasons no one has figured out and is accompanied everywhere he goes by his “officious seeing eye bitch,” a psychotic mutt named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr.
For his part, Young Alex is enthusiastic and means well, even if he is probably not the proudest achievement of the Ukrainian school system. What he does to the English language is probably banned by the Geneva Convention. His great love is American hip-hop music, even if his knowledge of the genre is stuck about twenty years in the past.
Their newest customer is Jonathan, who is looking for the girl in the photo, who apparently helped his grandfather escape the Ukraine ahead of the Nazis. All he has is the name of a village, Trachimbrod. From the moment Jonathan arrives in Odessa, the culture clash is comically obvious. For one thing, he’s afraid of dogs, which makes his relationship with Sammy touchy at first. He’s also a vegetarian, something that seems completely alien to the Ukrainian way of thinking. His attempts to order just a potato without meat result in the film’s funniest scene.
So they set out, the uptight Jonathan, the inquisitive Alex and his prickly grandfather, looking for Trachimbrod, a village that no one seems to have ever heard of. Jonathan squirms under Alex’s questioning and can’t seem to make him understand that Sammy Davis, Jr., was Jewish and that the word “negro” is no longer used. “My grandfather says that this is not possible,” is Alex’s reply to almost everything that Jonathan tells him.
The film slowly starts to shift its tone as we slowly start to realize that this movie is not Jonathan’s story, but the grandfather’s, and he has a connection to the village of Trachimbrod. The film leads us to believe that the old man might have been one of the Ukrainians who helped the Nazi death squads. As for the truth, I leave that for you to discover after the trio encounters Lista (Laryssa Lauret), an old woman living alone in a vast field of sunflowers. Like Jonathan, she is a collector and her collection will lead directly to a scene by a riverbank that is as beautiful as it is sad.
What’s amazing is how this film changes so dramatically in tone and style from beginning to end, yet the characters remain true to their natures. It’s a tiny masterpiece of writing and filmmaking that marks a truly promising beginning to Liev Schreiber’s directorial career.