Everything is Illuminated (2005)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-5 ; L-2 ; S/N-1 . Running time: 1 hour 42 min.

When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua,
“Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, `Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood, and carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’” Joshua therefore commanded the priests, “Come up out of the Jordan.”…

… And when the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the LORD came up from the midst of the Jordan, and the soles of the priests’ feet were lifted up on dry ground, the waters of the Jordan returned to their place and overflowed all its banks, as before. The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped in Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal. And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, `What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, `Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’

Joshua 4: 1-3; 18-22

Everything is Illuminated

Actor Liev Schreiber steps behind the camera to direct his own adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a nerdish Jewish young man who sets off from America on a quest to find in the Ukraine the woman who had helped his grandfather to escape the Holocaust in 1943. Thus the film bears a slight resemblance to the German film set in the same era Rosenstrassse, but exudes far more mystery, though apparently not as much as the novel, according to some critics who have read the latter. The book includes a great deal about the family’s ancestors in Eastern Europe, the story spanning several centuries. I have not read the source, and so was satisfied by the more narrowly focused film.

The post-Frodo Elijah Wood, equipped with dark-rimmed glasses as thick as the bottom of a Coke bottle, plays Jonathan Safran Foer. He is a peculiar, nerdish guy who collects small things and places them in little Ziploc bags, which he affixes to a large wall. A huge wall it is, filled with hundreds of little baggies, the latest of which includes the false teeth of his grandmother, by whose side he has kept watch. Apparently she has told him about his long-deceased grandfather whom a woman had saved from the Holocaust. And so Jonathan decides to try to locate the woman,

Arriving in the Ukraine where he has arranged for a local agency whose owner specializes in “Dead Jews,” that is tours paid for by wealthy American Jews in search of traces of their ancestors, Jonathan is driven around by Grandfather (Boris Leskin). The old man claims to be blind (he has a supposed seeing eye dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior in honor of his favorite singer). Grandfather is assisted by Alex (Eugene Hutz), his grandson. As they drive through the beautiful countryside, they engage in what Alex calls “the very rigid search” for Trachimbrod, the Jewish village wiped out by the Nazis. No one seems to know of it. At one point Grandfather stops the car and walks across a field to a place where the remains of an anti-aircraft cannon and other rusting equipment is strewn about. Suddenly he is back in time for just a brief moment, confronted by a German soldier with a raised rife. We realize that he harbors a secret that none of his family knows about.

Eventually they arrive at a house standing in a large field of sunflowers, where an old woman shows no surprise at their arrival or their quest. She, too, is a collector, it becoming evident that each of the hundreds of boxes and folders she has stored away contain artifacts and information about the long vanished residents of Trachimbrod. What Jonathan and his companions discover and how all this affects them I will leave for you to discover. The comment one of them makes about the past illuminating everything should be meaningful to people of faith, both Judaism and Christianity based upon remembering the great deeds of a saving God. The film, laced with a great deal of droll humor, is well worth the trouble of searching it out.

For Reflection/Discussion

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1) How do the two great ceremonies of Judaism and Christianity illuminate the nature of our faith? That is, what are Passover and the Eucharist based on? In the Scripture passage above, why do you think that Joshua wants the people to go to the trouble of erecting the stones? What does the past tell us about who and what we are? And for people of faith, Whose we are?

2) In what ways does Jonathan grow during his journey? How does his relationship to the so-called Seeing Eye dog show this?

3) Why do you think Grandfather does what he did after their discoveries?

4) How does Alex grow, this perhaps shown by the “book” he writes chronicling their adventures?

Have you delved into your family’s past? What have you discovered that “illuminates” the present?