The finest film you have never heard of ...
Okay, maybe it wasn't quite that long ago, but it has been a fair while since I first mentioned a fabulous film that I had just watched, which nobody seems to have heard of, which has intimate ties to a certain New York-based gypsy punk band.
The film, if you haven't already guessed, is Everything is Illuminated, the story of an American writer of sorts who travels to Ukraine in search of his roots, specifically the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis.
This American, Jonathan Safran Foer (who also happens to be the author of the novel), is played with great restraint, yet the right degree of quirkiness, by Elijah Wood. You see, Jonathan is a collector. The film opens with him as a young boy collecting the dentures of his grandmother from her deathbed. Ultimately his entire bedroom wall is festooned with baggies filled with his collectables.
And as he matures, he eventually he turns his attention to the story of his ancestors. As he cannot find the answers that he is seeking about his family history from his immediate family, particularly the identity of a mysterious woman in an aged photograph whom he knows is tied somehow to the story of his grandfather's immigration to America, he takes it upon himself to make a trip to the old country. And he embarks to Ukraine in search of Augustine and the long-lost village of Trachimbrod.
This is where he encounters the narrator of the ensuing "very rigid search", a young Ukrainian man named Alex, who is enamoured of all things American, and who is played with enormous charm and humour by Eugene Hutz.
Hutz actually makes his acting debut in Everything is Illuminated, being more well-known as the hugely mustached frontman for the frenetic gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello. Much of the music from the soundtrack is performed by Gogol Bordello, and its infectious exuberance is hard to resist.
Alex is the diplomat and translator behind Odessa Heritage Tours, run by his father and chauffeured by his grandfather, to accomodate Jewish Americans who have been making pilgrimages to Ukraine in search of their ancestors. Most of Alex's proficiency in English comes from studying the Thesaurus, and is responsible for him spouting such fractured statements as:
"but I dig negroes; they are premium people"
"This is Sammy Davis Jr. Jr... She is Grandfather's Seeing Eye bitch. Father purchased her for him not because he believes Grandfather is blind, but because a Seeing Eye bitch is also a good thing for people who pine for the opposite of loneliness. In truth, Father did not purchase her at all, but merely retrieved her from the home for forgetful dogs. Because of this, she is not a real Seeing Eye bitch, and is also mentally deranged. "
Alex's quick-witted diplomacy allows him to offer translations like this:
Jonathan: "I am distressed by dogs"
Alex (in Ukrainian to Grandfather): "He is afraid of dogs"
Grandfather (in Ukrainian to Alex): "Bullshit, no one is afraid of dogs"
Alex: "My grandfather informs me that this is not possible."
Everything is Illuminated is a comedy, but it is not lightweight, nor is it feel-good and fluffy. There is great tragedy within this film, unexplained and unresolved, personal tragedy set in the present and historical tragedy of a people.
This film will make you ponder the nature of human cruelty and compassion, at the same time that it will have you quoting such gems as:
"many girls wish to be carnal with me because I am such a premium dancer"
And now, because you have indulged me so kindly as I have attempted to explain why you must see this film, here is a taste of the irrepressible Gogol Bordello - 60 Revolutions.
Eva found the photo and she also just finished reading the book, so I've got a pile of catching up to do if I want to be as well versed in this genre as she is...