Film review

In ‘Fioretta,’ a father and son Euro road-trip into 500 years of Jewish family history

Premiering in Israel Sunday in Tel Aviv, Matthew Mishory’s documentary follows descendants of Arnold Schoenberg as they uncover their long-buried roots in Vienna, Prague and Venice

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

  • Randy (R) and Joey Schoenberg in the Vienna City Archives, a still from the 2023 film 'Fioretta.' (Rubber Ring Films)
    Randy (R) and Joey Schoenberg in the Vienna City Archives, a still from the 2023 film 'Fioretta.' (Rubber Ring Films)
  • Randy Schoenberg in the documentary 'Fioretta.' (Rubber Ring Films)
    Randy Schoenberg in the documentary 'Fioretta.' (Rubber Ring Films)
  • Joel (L) and Randy Schoenberg cross the Venice lagoon to visit an ancestral graveyard, in the documentary 'Fioretta.' (Rubber Ring Films)
    Joel (L) and Randy Schoenberg cross the Venice lagoon to visit an ancestral graveyard, in the documentary 'Fioretta.' (Rubber Ring Films)
  • Randy Schoenberg at a dinner gathering in the documentary 'Fioretta.' (Rubber Ring Films)
    Randy Schoenberg at a dinner gathering in the documentary 'Fioretta.' (Rubber Ring Films)
  • Randy and Joey Schoenberg in the documentary 'Fioretta.' (Rubber Ring Films)
    Randy and Joey Schoenberg in the documentary 'Fioretta.' (Rubber Ring Films)

“Fioretta,” the lusciously shot Jewish genealogical documentary by Israeli-American filmmaker Matthew Mishory, is clearly a labor of love, filmed by a Jewish team deeply engaged with their own culture and history, eager to share the process of this exploration with audiences.

The movie, which will have its Israeli premiere on Sunday in Tel Aviv, follows duo Randy and Joe Schoenberg, a father and son from Los Angeles, as they trace one strand of their family’s history in Europe back 500 years.

The film’s world premiere was September 30 in Woodstock, New York, followed by a showing at the Zurich Film Festival on October 5. After Israel, “Fioretta” is to be shown on October 19 at the Newport Beach Film Festival in California, followed by a limited theatrical release in the Los Angeles area.

Shot mostly in Vienna, Prague and Venice, “Fioretta” is a graceful tribute to a mostly vanished Jewish European society, its cinematography portraying gorgeously restored synagogues, ancient, tumbling graveyards and modern, well-organized archives. In their travels, the Schoenbergs also encounter a stream of interesting cousins, academics, artists and other characters who help them on their way.

Randy Shoenberg is the grandson of celebrated composer Arnold Shoenberg, a pillar of 20th-century classical music, and is a well-known philanthropist and lawyer in his own right, specializing in Nazi-looted art restitution. His successful 2004 case against the Austrian government to return five Gustav Klimpt paintings to original owner Maria Altmann was dramatized in the 2015 film “Woman in Gold.”

His enthusiasm for genealogy, history and family permeates “Fioretta,” and his 18-year-old son Joey, a sardonic aspiring chef with jet-black painted fingernails, is the perfect foil, exuding “Awww, Dad, really?” energy while nonetheless being slowly drawn into the adventure.

In a movie about lineage and Jewishness, it is Joey, the one seemingly the most removed, who uses his Hebrew in a critical later scene to help find a special ancestral gravestone.

“Fioretta” follows a sort of road trip format with the Schoenbergs traveling around Europe, simultaneously exploring a modern reality while also being drawn deeper and deeper into the past.

The central father-son narrative is enhanced by their encounters with the “crazy people” who help them on their journey, Randy Shoenberg stressed to The Times of Israel.

“The people we met and the community we made out of it” were one of the main highlights, Shoenberg said. Many of the personalities they met along the way “are not Jewish but they are interested in taking care of cemeteries, in Jewish history, and really preserving that history. There aren’t really so many Jews left in Europe, and certainly not enough to take care of all this history,” he said.

Shoenberg the composer, who was born in Austria in 1874 and moved to the United States in the 1930s after being persecuted by the Nazis, is not a main character in “Fioretta,” a deliberate decision, even though it is his maternal lineage which is explored in the movie.

“He is such a massive and essential figure,” director Mishory said, explaining that they didn’t want his gravitas to dominate the documentary.

“There are many people who spend their lives studying my grandfather,” Randy Shoenberg added. Instead, he said, his thought was, “Who else can I find who is interesting.”

And find he does, with the archival trail leading to unexpected discoveries, such as the titular Fioretta, a 16th-century Venetian woman whose husband, Rabbi Eliyahu Menachem Halfon, contributed an opinion for King Henry VIII’s famous divorce.

Halfon also wrote an extensive Torah commentary that survives in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Shoenberg, along with Eli Brackman, a Chabad rabbi working in Oxford, recently were able to scan the hand-written pages, which Brackman is now translating and sharing digitally in a Torah portion of the week format.

“After 500 years, he has a second life now, this Rabbi Halfon. He’s in a film, and people are suddenly interested again in what he did,” Shoenberg said.

Randy and Joey Schoenberg in the documentary ‘Fioretta.’ (Rubber Ring Films)

A self-described genealogy obsessive, Shoenberg runs a popular Facebook group for Jewish genealogy research. “I am incredibly lucky” to be able to discover so much Jewish family history, he noted, attributing it in part to the fact that this side of his family came to America before the Holocaust began.

The Holocaust does sometimes loom over the film — there is the obligatory trip to a concentration camp, where another branch of the family met their end — but “Fioretta,” despite the empty synagogues and neglected graves, is focused on an encounter with Europe’s vibrant Jewish past and those who are working to preserve it today.

Despite the myriad personalities involved, the movie is “really Randy and Joey’s story,” Mishory stressed. “Not allowing the film to be overwhelmed by any one historical figure was important.”

The various landscapes also play a pivotal role, as Mishory uses aerial shots, slow pans and meditative zooms to gently reveal the areas the Shoenberg duo explore. In one sequence, the Shoenbergs are able to discover the location of the seat where one of their ancestors would sit in a synagogue hundreds of years ago.

‘Fioretta’ filmmakers at the film’s world premiere in Woodstock, New York, on September 30, 2023. From left to right: Randy Schoenberg, director Matthew Mishory, Joel Schoenberg, producer Bradford Schlei and co-writer/executive producer Rob Levine. (Elana Leaf/courtesy)

Mishory, an award-winning documentarian and commercial filmmaker based in the Los Angeles area, has been actively involved with exploring similar themes in his previous works. His 2015 film “Absent,” now part of the Yad Vashem collection, documented a modern visit to the Moldavian village his own grandparents had originally hailed from before escaping to Israel.

His 2018 “No Place of Exile” was an avant-documentary examination of the life of Jewish Austrian composer/pianist Artur Schnabel, a contemporary of Arnold Schoenberg who also immigrated to America following the rise of the Nazis.

Future projects for Mishory include a documentary adaptation of Daniel Gordis’s “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn,” to be filmed in Israel next year. He is also to return in December to film a sequence for his project “Mosolov’s Suitcase,” a film in three parts about Ukrainian-Soviet avant-garde composer Alexander Mosolov.

“Fioretta” has its Israeli premiere on Sunday, October 8, at the ANU Museum in Tel Aviv. For tickets and information see this link

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