Yet another example of therapy masquerading as documentary, The Tree of Life follows filmmaker Hava Volterra as she travels to Italy in order to learn about the family history of her recently deceased father, who left Italy for Israel in his 20s and never looked back. She visits with her father’s friends and direct family, as well as with Jewish and Italian historians, who delve into the accomplishments of those who preceded her. Volterra seems to assume that her interest in her own family’s story is inherently fascinating, as she delivers her historical lessons—ranging from early Jewish mystics to famed Italian mathematicians—with the stultifying monotone of a tenured college professor who just doesn’t give a shit anymore. Unfortunately, she fails to create any sort of audience connection with either herself or her father, making the whole enterprise nothing more than a noxious solipsistic exercise. It is possible to create engaging, empathetic, moving art out from personal stories, as Ross McElwee and other film essayists have proven. But self-regard isn’t the same as self-examination, a distinction Volterra doesn’t grasp. Tree of Life isn’t a conversation; it’s a lecture, and one delivered—via incompetently edited interviews and unacceptably shoddy, Microsoft Paint-quality animated sequences—in such a way that the only people likely to care are those already in the movie.
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