Illuminate Me, Baby

Everything is illuminated in the light of the past.”

So says Alex (played by the marvelous Eugene Hutz) at the end of the 2005 filmEverything Is Illuminated,” which has become a Petchary Instant Classic ever since I first watched it on cable with my son.

Illuminated manuscript by Guvart des Moulins, 1492 - From the Life of Solomon
A lovely illuminated manuscript - 520 years old.

Illumination is a beautiful word, isn’t it?  It glows, it shines. It is a screen of fine cloth, lit from behind.  Like the medieval manuscripts of the same name, an illumination is rich in color, gilded.  Even every PR practitioner’s good friend, Adobe PhotoShop, can illuminate photos, make them brighter.

And so the past enriches the present, infusing it with the light of understanding.  Jamaicans celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Independence this year could reflect on this.  Our history, our tradition, our culture, surely throw light on the path before us, like a lantern held high.  A pool of light, a small moving light, through the darkness of the misunderstood present and the unknown future.

So it is in the film.  It has elements of a road movie, a genre the Petchary is particularly fond of.  An American Jew, played by Elijah Wood, sets off on a journey to the Ukraine to search for a particular woman who was a pivotal figure in his grandfather’s past.  His name is Jonathan Safran Froer – the name of the man who wrote the novel on which the film is based.  Jonathan, his round eyes made even more huge by severe black glasses, is a vegetarian – a concept which baffles his Ukrainian guides and companions as the “rigid search” begins.  His pale, sensitive, almost childlike face barely quivers with emotion and a certain sense of bravado.  Alex, however, narrows one eye in knowing fashion as he gazes out of the window of their rickety communist-era car, while conversing in the most extraordinary English (example: “My legal name is Alexander Perchov, but all of my friends dub me Alex, because this is much more flaccid to utter.”)  Yet, relationships are established among our four travelers – Jonathan, Alex, Alex’s allegedly blind grandfather (the driver), and his irascible dog Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., Grandpa’s “Seeing Eye Bitch.”  They travel through a landscape littered with rotting machinery, past the smashed windows of abandoned buildings near Chernobyl, and into a countryside as brilliantly yellow and green as Munchkin Land.  But the yellow wheat fields and the green orchards conceal a dark past.

I am not one of those people who write “spoilers” for the plots of books and movies, so I will not continue with an account of the many hilarious, perplexing and touching moments as the four travel towards Trachimbrod, a small Jewish village or shtetl.  The film was written by Liev Schreiber, an intelligent American actor with a drop of Ukrainian blood himself, who has acted in some not very highbrow movies such as the “Scream” series and has a face suitable for thrillers (usually as the bad guy).  But he came up trumps here with his directorial debut.

The film is about family, and the mystery of family – how much and how little we know about our grandparents, our parents, and what happened to them when they were young.  Both Jonathan and Alex find out so much more than they expected, after a meeting with a woman who lives in a huge field of sunflowers, where white sheets drying flap in the breeze, in a house where she lives alone – and yet not alone.  We should not take our elders for granted.  They have experienced things we will never know.  If only we knew more, our own lives would have more meaning.

Eugene Hutz in "Everything Is Illuminated"
Alex tries to figure things out - note the gold tooth and Kangol.

And it is about history – of course.  Jonathan goes searching back to wartime Europe, and the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews here, in this green-gold countryside.  This topic (in particular, perhaps, the alleged complicity of some Ukrainians – others heroically rescued and protected Jews during that terrifying period)  is highly sensitive for Ukraine and Ukrainians to this day.  There have been heated and very political debates in the last two or three years over a man regarded by many as a wartime hero, and whether he should receive an award and a statue.  History is painful, and messy, and complex – and Alex, who loves to wear Kangol berets and adores hip hop, Shaquille O’Neil and Michael Jackson, has never really related his country’s turbulent 20th century history to his family, his roots and his tradition.  He has never worked it all out.  Like his grandfather’s life, it is something he has very little information about – his own history, his tradition, the tradition of his elders.

The shooting of three soldiers and three Jewish children and a teacher in Toulouse, south western France (all ethnic minorities) this week has also reminded me of this film.  How prejudice and hatred linger, and how they become a habit.  A habit of thought, of speech, a cold and meaningless response to our human condition.  The emptiness of it.

Our intrepid travelers reach the end of their quest on a moonlit riverbank, where the silver light grazes the grass.  A beautiful illumination, again.

Postscript: Dear reader, if you have not seen this film don’t imagine that it is a harrowing story of gloom and depression.  No, it is actually very funny.  The wonderful, aforementioned Eugene Hutz, who really steals the show, was born in Kiev as Yevheniy Aleksandrovich Nikolayev-Simonov (try saying that in a hurry) and has Roma (that is, gypsy) blood in him.  He lives in Brooklyn now, after spending seven years in various East European refugee camps.  He is frontman for a gypsy punk band (I wonder if there are any other gypsy punk bands around) called Gogol Bordello – I guess a whorehouse frequented by Russian novelists.  Some of the (at times rather manic) soundtrack to the film is composed and performed by Mr. Hutz and performed by the band, who also actually appear in another guise in the film, too.  I particularly enjoyed the closing number, “Start Wearing Purple (for me now).”

Gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello
Woo Hoo! Mr. Hutz in his regular everyday life, as the lead singer for gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello.


Final postscript: By a curious coincidence, John Demjanjuk – accused of being “Ivan the Terrible,” a Ukrainian guard in a Nazi camp – died yesterday aged 91.  His final years were a series of courtroom appearances.  Perhaps the last word on his life and career came from an Israeli judge who dismissed charges against him: “The matter is closed — but not complete. The complete truth is not the prerogative of the human judge.”

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8 thoughts on “Illuminate Me, Baby

    1. Ha ha! Yes, I loved your illumination post. So beautiful. It’s a wonderful word, isn’t it? “Everything is illuminated in the light of the past.” This was such a moving, funny and at times sentimental movie. One of my real favorites…


  1. I never read the book but I absolutely love this film. I’ve recommended it to many of my friends and they all have said the same thing. It sneaks up on you with charm, sentiment and witty humor and they couldn’t stop watching it. As brilliant as Eugene Hutz is as Alex, I don’t feel he stole the movie. Elijah Wood was equally as good and gave one of his best performances being extremely subtle and showing most of his feelings through expressions and bodily movements. Everyone in this film was superb!

    If your readers haven’t seen Everything Is Illuminated, see it!


    1. Yes, it does sneak up on you. I wrote this blog post after watching it for the second time, having bought the DVD. And yes, I think I am being unfair – Elijah Wood was subtle (and sensitive, as I mentioned) – I think the relationship between them was excellent, and they played off each other. Excellent acting.


  2. We’ll pick this up when we get back to Blighty. Re-examining the past is a painful experience for nations that define nationhood by a sense of righteousness, heroism and/or sacrifice. The truth is oh so more complex. It’s sometimes easier to ignore the past rather than learn from it.


    1. Exactly. Countries like the Ukraine have been through so much, and they are very conflicted about their past. The younger character in the film seems to know so little about what his grandfather went through. And it is all very complex, in shades of grey , very often. It’s thought-provoking (not that the topic hasn’t been addressed before in many ways) – but it was the way in which it was dealt with, with a lot of humor and rather odd characters. Well worth a viewing.


    1. I haven’t read the book – I hear the movie is rather different but it is really well done. The whole issue (and that of the so-called Ivan the Terrible, whose U.S. citizenship was revoked twice I believe) is all in shades of grey rather than black and white, good guy and bad guy. Not always so simple.


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