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15 October 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: The Tree of Life

This 2008 documentary, The Tree of Life, has the misfortune of sharing the same title as a yet-to-be-released 2009 film with Sean Penn and Brad Pitt.

Written by David Donihue and Hava Volterra, this is a film about one woman's search for her roots, one's she had wished to explore with her father but didn't move quick enough.

Volterra grew up in Israel, but had moved to Los Angeles where she worked an engineer. The movie begins with a shot of an MRI machine--white, cold and cavernous. In a voiceover, she recalls how one day, speaking to her father over the phone, she thought he sounded old. The 'urgently wanted him to go and visit Italy." She wants to send her father and mother to Italy, but fate intervenes. Her father, a scientist, had left Italy for Israel when he was in his twenties and never looked back. He never spoke to his children about the family he had left or the life he had left in Italy although his daughter felt he was so Italian in his very essence.

Soon after that phone call, her father learns he has a large tumor in his brain and 30 days later, he is dead, having never returned to the land of his birth.

Recalling her father, Volterra feels he lived his life very quietly. He didn't "promote himself" and that he felt himself a failure for not having won a Nobel Prize. Her uncle, his brother, was very interested in the family heritage and shaking the family tree reveals bankers in Florence, a prime minister, a heretic and an American politician.

Volterra takes the trip back to Italy that her father was unable to take.

As one who once journeyed back to the land of my grandparents and reclaimed my ancestral heritage--for better or worse--this documentary is an encouraging reminder that there is value in the past if only to redefine the present. Yet not everyone's family tree will reveal people of such influence and high stature as is the case with Volterra.

Beyond the sometimes amateurish production values (shaky camera) which is somewhat offset by the quaint animation segments, one wonders what is the real worth of this documentary outside of a personal record of one family's tree?

The tree of life is a concept found in many cultures, uniting the heaven and earth, and is mentioned in the Bible. According to Wikipedia, it is a common term used in Judaism to refer to the Torah itself and, at times, to yeshivas (a rabbinical school) and synagogues as well as to rabbinic literary works.

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