'Death of a Tree': Film Review
John Martoccia's drama concerns a deeply religious 51-year-old man who suffers a crisis of faith when he falls for a much younger woman.
Deeply religious men are apparently catnip to the ladies. At least that's the message one takes away from this ham-fisted, faith-based drama about a 51-year-old widower who commits the cardinal sin of falling in love with a sexy girl 30 years his junior. The sophomore feature by John Martoccia, who previously made the similarly religious-themed Vito Bonafacci, delivers its themes in such a strident, unsubtle fashion that even true believers may find themselves blanching.
The central character is James (Ronnie Marmo), an abstract expressionist artist who specializes in "gasoline paintings." Celibate for many years since the death of his wife, his devoutness is expressed in every conversation, especially his frequent confessions to his local priest (played by a real-life reverend).
Spending much of his time praying outside a Planned Parenthood clinic, he finds his well-ordered life turned upside down when he hires Erica (Gracie Tyrrell), the daughter of friends, to clean his house. Despite having a live-in boyfriend, Erica quickly turns on the charm for her new boss, at one point showing up for work in a short, body-hugging dress that leaves little to the imagination.
"You look … provocative," the flustered James tells her. "Well, do you like the way I look?" she asks while sexily rubbing her thighs.
Cue more anguished confessions to the priest, as James finds himself falling for the young woman, who's all too eager to return his affections. They eventually wind up in the sack, leading James to an intense crisis of conscience since he profoundly believes that sex should only be practiced within the confines of marriage.
Meanwhile, one of Erica's female friends — who takes far too long to compute that when James is 70, Erica will be 39 — tries to talk her out of the relationship.
"What are you trying to be — this guy's wife or nurse's aide?" she sarcastically inquires.
Eventually James decides that he's not in love with Erica but in lust and breaks off the relationship, unaware that she's pregnant with his child (possibly, since she was also having sex with her boyfriend at the time). Her resulting downward spiral, beginning with an impulsive roll in the hay with a married friend, ultimately leads to a melodramatically tragic denouement.
While it's certainly possible to make a moving drama about characters coping with conflicts between their spiritual and earthly desires — Robert Bresson, for one, managed it rather well — Martoccia proves himself a completely inept filmmaker, crafting simplistic dialogue more resembling sermonizing than speech and characters who seem lifted from a high school educational film. Add to that the pseudo-artsy poems written by the filmmaker that periodically appear onscreen, and you have a film that is as pretentious as it is smugly moralizing. By the time it ends with an extended conversation between a priest and a young woman he encounters outside an abortion clinic, even those viewers sympathetic to its message likely will have long since thrown up their hands.
Production: Anthony Stella Productions
Cast: Ronnie Marmo, Gracie Tyrrell, Paul Borghese, Tisha Tinsman, Rev. Richard Dellos, Danny Pennacchi
Director/screenwriter/producer/executive producer: John Martoccia
Director of photography: Johnny Soussa
Editor: Ray Chung
Composer: Emmett Van Slyke
Not rated, 80 min.