Saturday, May 16, 2015

SOHO ’15: Leaves of the Tree

An ailing patent attorney is about to take the Mediterranean Diet one step further. He might have heard about the benefits of olive oil, but it is the leaves that can really work miracles. Of course, they are not just from any olive tree. They are from the olive tree. Even lawyers and pharmaceutical executives will start to have faith in Ante Novakovic’s Leaves of the Tree (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 SOHO International Film Festival.

Retirement seems inevitable for Patrick Messina, since his ticker is even less reliable than Fred Sanford’s. He has already turned over most of his cases to his partner, Joe Buffa (great name), but he is keeping one. His Big Pharma client has been approached by the mysterious Sicilian, Dr. Ferramonti, who can document the healing powers of an ancient olive tree on his estate. If Messina’s client can isolate the miraculous active ingredient, they can save vast numbers of life and make a good chunk of change. Once they do that, Messina can start drafting up papers or something, but until then, he and his wife Sweetness will enjoy living the good life in Ferramonti’s villa.

Ironically, only Messina’s daughter Danielle seems to be doing any work on this trip. She is just a research intern at the company, but she is the one putting in all the lab time. The company president also made the trip, but she will get distracted by Hank, Ferramonti’s houseguest and self-appointed guardian of the tree. He’s sort of a cross-between Kato Kaelin and a Templar Knight. However, he will have to get serious when a hardline faction within the Vatican makes a play to control access to the tree.

What this film needs is more Joe Buffa, because he is played by Armand Assante, who always commands the screen. Assante also appeared in Novakovic’s short film, The Fix, which played at the 2013 Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York. The charming festival organizers were quite taken with Assante when he attended the screening, so that’s good enough for us.

Assante is dependable as ever and so is Eric Roberts, playing against type as Messina. He seems to enjoy being the decent and loving family man for a change, but nobody makes a better drug-addled psychopath, so he should not make a habit of more wholesome roles. Regardless, he and Sean Young develop some quite agreeable chemistry together, genuinely feeling like a comfortably married couple. Federico Castelluccio also brings some real gravitas to the film as Dr. Ferramonti, but most of the rest of the cast is mostly just serviceable.

Someone must have had an amazing time scouting locations for Leaves, because it amply capitalizes on the Sicilian backdrops. At times, it is like scenery porn. Novakovic and cinematographer John Schmidt clearly have great eyes for visuals. While the narrative is a bit clunky at times, the way it echoes elements of the Fisher King legend is surprisingly compelling. It is also refreshing to see a film that casts the pharmaceutical company executives as the good guys.

Leaves is pleasant enough if not exactly exceptional, but its upcoming screening at the Temple of Segesta (which appears in the film) sounds like an amazing event. If you can attend, by all means do so. Its upcoming domestic festival screenings will seem conventionally pale in comparison. Still, it is nice to see a film that takes faith seriously, but also has considerably more polish and verve than the sort of fare typically released for the Christian market. Worth a look for those interested in Sicily and Christian Mystery, Leaves of the Tree screens tomorrow (5/17) and Wednesday (5/20) during this year’s SOHO International Film Festival.