This flick came out in 2005. But great movies, like great books, great songs – any great work of art, deserve to be revisited every so often. I see probably 300 movies a year and four years on, this one still plays in my mind as vividly as the first time I saw it. I went to watch the DVD last weekend and much to my horror, found it was not there! I wonder who has it? And will I ever get it back?
The real star of this stellar indie from actor-turned-director Liev Schreiber is Ukrainian Eugene Hutz’s narration. Previously best-known as the frontman for the Gogol Bordello Ukrainian Punk Gypsy Band, he plays Alex, a third generation tourist guide specialising in rich American Jews searching for their history. His long-suffering father has organised an excursion for a young American collector, Jonathan Safran Foer, to find a village razed by the Nazis in 1940, where he hopes to meet Augustine, a woman he believes saved his grandfather’s life.
Bespectacled Jonathan (Elijah Wood) is possibly the most uptight person on the planet. He is speechless on his arrival at the Kiev train station, where Alex has mustered a brass band to play the American national anthem; horrified when he spies the Soviet-era car he is to travel in with an apparently blind
driver, Alex’s grandfather, also named Alex (Boris Leskin); and apoplectic when told he is to ride in the back with the elder Alex’s vicious ‘officious seeing eye bitch,’ Sammy Davis junior junior. Yet, he is powerless against Alex the younger, and complies, curling into the furthest reaches of the back seat while Sammy Davis junior junior growls.
The first half plays as the road trip from hell – at least for Jonathan, Wood playing the hapless straight man to Hutz’s obsession with Michael Jackson and American culture channelled through his own brand of self-taught English. He is a strict vegetarian – a phenomenon completely alien to the proprietors of the inn where they stay. Perhaps a sausage? Perhaps not. The only comfort zone in Jonathan’s life is his bedroom wall, where he has posted relics of his family history. Drawing closer to the reality of the past, he is removed from everything he has ever known.
As we approach the lost village of Trochenbrod, the tone of the film darkens. Alex the elder also has secrets that vent themselves in mindless rage against his grandson. But just as the weight of the past becomes oppressive, and the film turns bleak, everything is illuminated in a series of stunning emotional scenes.
Some critics panned this film on its release, claiming it failed to live up to Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel. While it is true there are some narrative and factual diversions, first-time director Liev Schreiber, who wrote the screenplay, was also pursuing his own lost family history in the making of this film and the screenplay received the novelist’s blessing before going into production.
Paul Cantelon’s dazzling soundtrack, which ties traditional Ukrainian folk tunes, cuts from Hutz’s band, Gogol Bordello Ukranian Punk Gypsy Band and some spare jazz-fusion complements the mood, without dictating how the viewer should feel. But Matthew Libatique’s cinematography will leave you breathless. His previous work includes Requiem for a Dream and Gothika. He is a master of the subtleties inhabiting the darkness – and here brings us into the light. If you haven’t seen this gem, rent it now. And if you have fairly recently – is that MY copy you’ve got there?