The Shtettle Is Not an Amusement Park

The first (and only) time I met Liev Schreiber was on the set of CSI. Schreiber was doing a stint on the show while William Peterson was on leave for a run of Dublin Carol in Providence, R.I. at the Trinity Rep Theater. Schreiber struck me as a very serious actor who delved into the each moment with great focus. He was not to be bothered and he only spoke when he, the director, and other actors were discussing the scene. Other than that, nothing else.

It was this same intensity I though I would find in Schreiber’s Everything Is Illuminated. A story that follows Jonathan, a man seeking reminants of his Jewish heritage after the horrors of World War II, could very easily be a tough, dour story; it is an era that has been often documented on film. Schreiber’s seriousness was there,

for sure–the focused narrative, the imaginative inner life of the characters, the methodical structuring of images–but I had not expected a sense of humor. Goofy with engaging characters, the film features a Ukranian grandfather (and chauffeur) who swears he’s blind, his grandson (and English translator) who admires American culture film above all else, grandfather’s “seeing eye bitch” (a dog named Sammy Davis Junior Junior) and Jonathan, an American collector and awkwardy out of place in all of this. If anything, it’s a solid road trip movie, with humorous interludes. In one scene, Jonathan must explain to his tour guides and waitress that yes, he is a vegetarian, no he’s not crazy, and yes, he really did want food without any meat with it. The solid performances from all three men elevate the film substantially. Everything Is Illuminatedrelies heavily on cultural misunderstandings and sharp dialogue. The Liev Schreiber I saw on set was undoubtedly only one side; had not fully realized how funny he could really be.

Where the film begins, however, is not where it ends. The light-heartedness and humor switches to a dark, profound personal examination for each character. Most of all for the grandfather, the three men reexamine their relationship with their personal past, the past of their family, and history on the larger scale. Roger Ebert wrote of the film, “‘Everything is Illuminated’ is a film that grows in reflection…. I admired the film but did not sufficiently appreciate its arc.” It is a film that has stuck with me more than most and on further reflection, it had a lot more going on under the surface than it seemed originally. It touches on the horrors of the Holocaust, about living in a community, about saving and passing on heritage and sustaining one’s culture. It is thought provoking and pensive while also entertaining.

I’m sure a lot of these themes and considerations are transplanted from the original novel (which I have not read). One night, several of my friends were arguing over the book and one, a jewish history scholar, made the claim that the book is “ahistorical” and said “the shtettle is not an amusement park.” From what best I can piece together is is a a place of origin, a “home” of jewish faith. Now only remembering the words and not the meaning, I can only assume my jewish history scholar friend thought the story trivialized the jewish experience by influsing the road trip with a sense of nostalgia for the past, a past so horrible it still lingers in our super-conscious. I bring this up because while, yes, the film did have a feeling of nostalgia for the past, I believe it was more a seach for truth and understanding of what meaning those events held for those living it and how the past still affects us today. What the story is ultimately trying to convey is how we should keep a hold of the past, learn from the past, and learn to move on.

The dialogue is sharp, the scenes well paced and there are enough parts keeping the story going that it is an enjoyable film. My one major criticism of the film is how the two main stories of the film never added together. This is not to say that every story should tie together arbitrarily narratives that have no reason being tied together. Rather, in this case, the stories of the American’s grandfather and the Ukrainian chauffeur seem connected somehow but it was never clear to what extent. Did the American’s grandfather know the Ukrainian grandfather? Were they together in the same town when the Nazis took over? Do they have some familial connection? If you see or have seen the film, I think you will know what I am talking about. The connections between the two story lines seem present, but never explained satisfactorily.

At the end of this, I cannot quite decide whether or not to give the film a 5 or a 6 out of 7. I resist the 6 because it was off-beat to the extent it wandered a bit, but the 5 doesn’t quite express the quality of filmmaking I found present in the film. And no, there are no half ratings; that’s cheating. Ultimately I believe it deserves a 6 because it is a film one could watch multiple times and get something new from it. I’m curious to see what he would work on next.

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