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Hava Volterra & Aunt Viviana

Produced & Directed by
Hava Volterra
Written by
Volterra & David N. Donihue
English, Italian & Hebrew with English subtitles
USA/Italy/Israel. 76 min. Not Rated

There are some entertaining, if elementary, reflections on the history of Jews in Italy in The Tree of Life. First-time documentarian Hava Volterra uses her own family as a microcosm to explore the challenges and successes of living in the country that first gave the world the term “ghetto” for restrictions on Jews (in 1516 Venice).

The death of her scientist father inspired the Israeli-born, North-American-raised engineer to muse on what it is about her family that is ineffably Italian in addition to being Jewish (which doesn’t get answered by the making of this film). She is helped tremendously on her odyssey by her father’s intrepid and elderly sister, puppeteer Viviana Volterra Gerner, who handily carries a camera with her everywhere she goes.

But the one place her aunt has not been back to since immigrating to Israel after World War II is to the family that sheltered her in a small town outside her home city of Ancona during the Holocaust, and it takes some convincing to get her to revive her rusty Italian to find them. (There are only vague hints at the end about why she may have mixed feelings about them.) 

Historically costumed marionettes bring to life the famous people on their family tree. In Israel and Italy, she traces their roots from the 1408 municipal agreement allowing Jews to be money lenders in Volterra, Tuscany. She then includes the extraordinary 18th century Kabbalist rabbi known as the Ramhal and economist Luigi Luzzatti, who, at the turn of the last century, organized Venice’s first gondoliers’ union before becoming Italy’s first Jewish prime minister. Her family even somehow includes Fiorello LaGuardia, so there’s footage of his anti-Fascist broadcasts to his father’s homeland in hesitant Italian, radio transmissions her aunt fondly recalls.

Their accomplishments and adventures are presented within the context of the ever-changing status of Italian Jews, including issues of forced conversion. The animation, illustrations and puppetry are amusingly vivid, if very simplistic, inspired by the tone of—but no way comparable to—Primo Levi’s lively first chapter of The Periodic Table, his recounting of his family’s history as Piedmontese Jews. They lighten up the many sprawling interviews with historians, archivists, biographers, and various experts around the world, including a rabbi who sings uniquely Italian versions of Jewish songs.

But the devoted Volterra persists in ruminating about her father, his marriage, his leftist politics, and his career as a physicist. Her brooding about their relationship and her interviews with those who knew him turn these very long segments into a video better left to a family reunion or a professional tribute. The Tree of Life did, however, remind me to reach out to long lost cousins and to thoroughly update our (much less illustrious) family tree. Nora Lee Mandel
September 12, 2008



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