With Infinite Heart By Phillip Bergson

in 7th Bratislava International Film Festival

by Phillip Bergson

The past is not only a foreign country, as buttoned-up American Jonathan Safran Froer discovers during his odd odyssey across present-day Ukraine. It remains with us always, on the inside, like a garment worn with the wrong side out. Everything Is Illuminated is indeed a brilliant directing debut by the successful actor Leiv Schreiber who, looking for a story to illustrate the darker saga of his own Jewish background found in the real-life Froer’s best-selling memoir (which first saw the light as a short story in the New Yorker magazine) a merry yet moving mosaic of culture-clashes, dreams dashed and hopes yet to be fulfilled. It ingeniously depicts memory’s sometimes cruel, sometimes kind, but ever firm grip on the present.

Unusually, this fresh and funny film was not only the unanimous choice of our Jury for the FIPRESCI prize at the MFF Bratislava 2005, but also received the Audience Award. Both trophies were gracefully and gratefully received by the director in person, having sped from shooting his death scene in Plzen- in the latest of the Omen horror series- in the neighbouring Czech Republic, and via private plane and a frantic drive across the Danube reached the Palace auditorium literally in the final minutes of the festival cloture. Curiously, the film was overlooked by the Official Jury; at its world premiere in Venice, it had won the parallel Laterna Magica prize. World-wide distribution is ensured by Warner Bros.

Here battling not Orcs but awkward Ukrainians, erstwhile Hobbit Elijah Wood gives a nicely understated perfiormance as the heavily-bespectacled collector J.F.S., who after the death of his grandmother flies out to the Old Country. In Odessa, he is met by a language-mangling tour guide Alex (another notable debut by Eugene Hutz, apparently an authentic local DJ who has a genuine screen presence, as they used to say of stars in the making) and in the family firm’s ramshackle Trabant, driven by a blind grandfather and accompanied by a deranged dog called Sammy Davis Jnr Jnr (sic), they set off for the long-vanished shtetl of Trachimbrod. To Paul Cantelon’s marvellous score, mixing melody, klezmer and jazz, the “very rigid” search is commenced for wedding rings, yet no less mysterious than those in Tolkien’s quest. En route, a tentative rapport blooms between the seemingly so different modern young men – Alex, who dreams of rapping on the far side of the Atlantic, can’t understand why anyone would want to take a holiday from America, while Jonathan doesn’t eat meat, is distressed by the dog, of course, yet is the spitting image of his grandfather whose fading foto he clutches. Alex’s grandfather,who is not really visually-challenged, spends the trip spitting politically-incorrect venom in his vernacular (wittily rendered by the English subtitles). Eventually, after a string of hilarious vignettes, all come to find rather more than they were looking for.

It is rare to find an American feature today with such a feeling for Europe, and with such obvious disdain for the usual dictates of commerce-driven mainstream movies. There is no sex (although Alex innocently asks Jonathan if he is “carnal very often”), little violence, other than the chastisements of one generation despairing of the other, and the only explosions are of recognition, and understanding of the strength of the ties that bind us all. The film is a gem that will sparkle with increasing vigour – with Prague and its surrounds doubling for the Ukraine, it was made in the heart of Europe, with evident and infinite heart.