Friday, September 12, 2008

Tree of Life and Its Italian Roots

It is estimated eighty percent of Italy’s Jewish population survived the Holocaust. For most European countries survival rates were roughly an inverse twenty percent. Italy’s widespread resistance to the genocidal murder of its Jewish citizens made Hava Volterra’s documentary Tree of Life (trailer here) possible, because her father was one of those sheltered by compassionate Catholic Italians. Volterra’s film, opening in New York today, chronicles of her family history, reaching back to de Medici Florence and culminating with a reunion between her Aunt and the Good Samaritan Stortini family who harbored the Volterra’s during the war.

For family history to make decent cinema, the family in question had better be interesting. The Volterras pass this test. Their family tree includes some pretty significant branches, including Meshullam da Volterra, a Florentine banker (money-lender) and friend of Lorenzo de Medici; Ramhal, a mystical rabbi and extremely prolific kabbalist who was nearly excommunicated for his messianic teachings; Luigi Luzzatti, the first Jewish Prime Minister of both Italy and in Europe at large; and even New York Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia, whose Jewish ancestry is not widely recognized. However, it is Volterra’s father Vittorio who looms largest in throughout the film.

According to Volterra, her father always struck her as innately Italian despite spending his entire post-war years in Israel. Shortly before his death, Volterra sensing time might be short, suggested he visit his Italian homeland. That trip not taken becomes the impetus for Tree. Volterra visits important sites from her family’s past in both Italy and Israel, with her Aunt Viviana Volterra Gerner, a puppeteer and documentarian, along serving as both cameraperson and company.

For Volterra, her father is the central figure of the story, a man who evidently considered himself something of a failure for not reaching loftier scientific heights. This is often blamed on the Communist ideology of his youth. While Volterra explains he “regretted his Communist past,” it is not made clear if that is because of the inconveniences it created in his career, or because of the revelations of the horrors committed in its name. It also seems his distaste for academic politics was probably as a great an obstacle in his career path, which one can certainly identify with.

While Vittorio’s story might interest some, the scope of the entire Volterra family history, which essentially encompasses the development of the modern Italian state, is far more interesting. Volterra employs some highly stylized animation and animatronic puppetry to illustrate key scenes from Volterra history, of which the Ramhal sequences are particularly effective. They give the film a distinct visual sense not often seen in documentaries.

When Volterra’s Aunt finally reunites with the Stortini family, it is a nice moment, but not as dramatic viewing as one might expect. Tree is really more about the family’s journey up to that point. Along the way, viewers will get a fresh perspective on Italian history in general, the Italian Jewish experience in particular, and even some relatively familiar historical figures, like Mayor LaGuardia. It opens today at the Two Boots Pioneer.