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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Hava Volterra: The Tree of Life (2008)

A discussion started today on a web list of words&palabras, about The Tree of Life, the movie released in 2011, featuring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. Someone who already watched the movie was enthusiastic, though warning us that it's not everybody's hat. Another buddy (who hasn't yet seen the movie) mentioned that all comments he found on the web were coming from people who were either extremely enthusiastic or extremely dissatisfied. So it seems to be a movie of the either / or kind: Kirkegaard's hat. And the flow of discussion was going on.

As I am the kind of guy rather enthusiastic when it comes to a movie that disappoints most of its viewers, I tried to find a way to watch The Tree of Life. I found it on Netflix, only it's very complicated for me to watch it from there.

It happened that I found on the Netflix also another Tree of Life, a movie from 2008 this time (no way to watch it, either). The storyline seemed very interesting:

After the death of her Jewish Italian father, Hava travels with her 82-year-old aunt to Italy to reconstruct her family tree. As she tracks down scholars and old documents, Hava connects with her family's history and ponders her personal identity. Using animation and special marionettes, this documentary traces the important roles of Jews as moneylenders, mystics, scientists and politicians in Italian society over the past centuries.

Trying to build your family tree, that's definitely my hat. Together with two of my cousins I am just doing that, and while everything up to grandparents level is crystal clear, searching further is terribly difficult: you are advancing on moving sands, you need to follow very hazardous hypotheses, and to discern between contradictory evidences. A book in my home library has an annotation from 1916: one of my uncles, by that time seventeen years old had read the book and knew that it had belonged to a great-grandmother who had come to Romania from France. The book has another annotation from 1881. That's fine, only from a note written by a brother of my grandfather, it comes that the French lady had died in 1848 (and the book was published in Paris in 1869)! A bust of a lady with an aristocratic allure complicates the things; it could be the mysterious French great-grandmother, only it has an year mentioned, which is unclear, but, as unclear as it is, seems to be rather 1901! Well, there are documents in the archives, only you should know that before the middle of nineteenth century, the alphabet in use on this part of the world was the Cyrillic.

Anyway, what I can say is that while the search is extremely difficult, anything you find is extremely satisfying.

So you'll understand my interest for this movie made in 2008, The Tree of Life. The information about it on IMDB is very scarce. There are no reviews. The director is Hava Volterra: it's her only movie up to this date. It's her own story: she made the journey to Italy, together with her old aunt, so it's a documentary about her searches and her findings

Rotten Tomatoes has reviews about this movie. Honestly, all reviews are definitely negative. It's a sympathetic notion, to be sure, but it leaves one feeling you're on the couch with Volterra, not on a roots quest, says one of the reviewers, Ms. Volterra, acting as narrator and interviewee herself, can't seem to resist the urge to be the star of her own film, which too often feels like a wearisome exercise in self-therapy, says another reviewer, and there are also more harsh statements. Are they right? Do they miss the point? Impossible to decide without watching the movie.

At least I found there a more detailed storyline:

Hava Volterra's new documentary about her journey to Italy to trace the roots of her Jewish ancestors is a personal family saga that illuminates the fascinating history of the Jews of Italy. The film follows the Israeli-born director, an engineer in Los Angeles, as she struggles to come to terms with her father's death by traveling to Italy, the land of his birth, to trace the roots of his family tree. Beginning in the ancient Adriatic city of Ancona, Volterra and her feisty 82-year-old Aunt Viviana travel extensively through Italy, digging up rare historical manuscripts, interviewing an array of quirky historians, and discovering the astonishing and humorous stories of their ancestors, including moneylenders and bankers in Florence of the Medici; a prominent Venetian rabbi and mystic involved in the Kabbalah; a mathematician who headed Italy's academy of sciences in the early 1900s; Italy's first Jewish prime minister, and finally, a prominent Italian-American politician whose name will be familiar to all New Yorkers. The film also includes the poignant reunion of Viviana with the Italian family who sheltered her and Ms. Volterra's father from the Nazis during WWII.

I looked for the movie also on youTube (no success, you gotcha). What I ultimately found was a poem written by the Kabbalist Isaac Luria in the sixteenth century, about the tree of life. Here it is:



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