J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Death of a Tree: Temptation Tidies Up the House

The depth of your religious conviction is a lot like your sex life. If it works for you, that’s swell, but the rest of us really don’t want to hear about it. Bizarrely, both aspects of a converted Catholic widower’s life will be explored in glorious detail in John Martoccia’s Death of a Tree (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

In all fairness, religion is an important part of everyday people’s lives that remains criminally underdeveloped in mainstream commercial filmmaking. Martoccia set out rectify cinema’s religion deficit, from a readily admitted Catholic perspective in Tree and his relatively well received debut Vito Bonafacci. That is a fine mission to take on, but right from the start, it is hard to figure just who Tree’s intended audience might be.

James is a tough talking, tattooed artist, who converted to Catholicism after his wife’s death, with all the zeal the saying implies. You will know his house, because it is the one with the big Virgin Mary statue on the front porch. James is already a mainstay at the local Planned Parenthood protests and serves as an unofficial lay counselor to his fellow parishioners, so he is seriously considering the priesthood as his next logical step. Then he hires Erica to tidy up around the house.

Somehow, they once knew each other from way back when, but that backstory is never clearly explained. In any event, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Erica is a little surprised how devout James is, but she is strangely impressed when he lets her know what a harlot she is for shacking up with her boyfriend. She naturally finds herself attracted to James as a result and thereby sets out to seduce him. Alarmed by his stirrings of passion, James confesses regularly, but he just cannot get her out of his system.

It is hard to say which are more awkward, the melodramatic May-Decemberish relationship or the many scenes of James protesting outside Planned Parenthood. Frankly, it would probably be healthy for the culture if a film seriously depicted the values and commitment of Pro-Life activists. However, part of that portrait should involve their struggles as to how they should best calibrate their message. When James quietly preys while a thug screams and spits in his face, it is a powerful image. Yet, most of the time, the protestors have their volume cranked up to eleven. Even if you are somewhat sympathetic, they look and sound pretty shrill, but somehow that seems to reach hearts and minds in the film.

On the other hand, the central relationship is just problematic through and through. As James and Erica, Ronnie Marmo and Gracie Tyrrell never develop any believable chemistry. By the time matters really get out of hand, viewers will be hoping Erica will pull off her face to reveal a succubus sent to tempt James, but nothing cool like that is going to happen in this film.

Tree probably says everything Martoccia wants it to, but he completely loses sight of how it might be received by third parties, including those who might benefit from the Church’s teachings. That means it doesn’t work, regardless of what his intentions might be. We feel bad saying it, but Death of a Tree cannot be recommended as cinema or an apologia when it opens today (4/3) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.