The Tree of Life


Throbbing with midlife crisis after a brush with cancer, Los Angeles–based electronics engineer Hava Volterra journeys to Italy in search of deep background about her late father, a physicist. In Israel, where she grew up, in the ghettos of Venice, and in the town of Volterra that gave her family its name, she digs up a pretty interesting family tree and a truly fascinating history of Italian-Jewish life from the 15th century through the Holocaust, enhanced by interviews with historians in Italy and Israel and some nifty animation and marionette puppetry. One sympathizes with Volterra’s yearning to find out more about her “doting” but remote father, yet he remains a shadowy and not altogether likable figure who, despite being a devout Communist, felt humiliated by his failure to win a Nobel Prize. Trotting out her family’s illustrious pedigree as scientists, bankers, and politicians at every turn, Volterra appears to have inherited some of his intellectual snobbery. Fortunately, her affinity for Italian stereotypes is countered with delightful truculence by the film’s most engaging character, her down-to-earth octogenarian aunt Viviana, who enjoys her work in the kibbutz laundry, entertains kids with puppets on the side, and won’t stand for any bullshit about the romantic essence of the Mediterranean temperament.

Archive Highlights