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Review: A journey into a distant past brings an extended family closer in documentary ‘Fioretta’

Two men take a water taxi in Venice.
From left, Joey and Randy Schoenberg in the documentary “Fioretta.”
(Rubber Ring Films)
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Testing kits have done wonders for the world of pop genealogy and fame junkies thrilled to discover they have Jane Austen‘s DNA. But for passionate types like Los Angeles lawyer E. Randol “Randy” Schoenberg, grandson of legendary Expressionist composer Arnold, tracking one’s ancestry is most meaningful when you can go to the places your forebears were buried.

And when one’s family is also Jewish, with a history of migration and persecution, the journey can bear a richer meaning beyond a ledger entry here and a gravestone find there. As Randy — who did his first family tree at age 11 — affirms in “Fioretta,” a new documentary chronicling his European trip last year with 17-year-old son Joey to see how far back they can trace their lineage, learning about those who came before can feel like preventing a “final death,” that of no one left to remember them.

With that kind of heaviness in the air, it’s not surprising that teenage Joey has a bit of hesitancy facing a trip full of basements, books and cemeteries. But his wide-eyed dad is like a kid in a candy store. (Randy made his name recovering Nazi-looted paintings, as dramatized in the 2015 Helen Mirren film “Woman in Gold.”)

A man smiles at a dinner table.
A scene from the documentary “Fioretta.”
(Rubber Ring Films)

Accompanied by Europe-based kin and with the assistance of various custodians of Jewish history, the father-son duo begins the excursion in Vienna, where Randy’s gifted grandfather was born (and where the Arnold Schoenberg Center relocated from USC). It then extends to synagogues, historical centers and memorials across the Czech Republic (from which the composer’s mother’s family hailed), eventually ending up in the Venice Lido’s Jewish cemetery, where Randy’s oldest known ancestor, the Fioretta of the title, was believed to be buried in the 1600s.

As personal as this clearly is for Randy — and ultimately, for his son too — director Matthew Mishory’s handsomely shot documentary struggles to bring this unearthed history alive outside the parameters of a shaggy, awkwardly staged tour led by an excitedly riffing docent. The sheer number of names, linkages and mini bios is breathtaking (500 years’ worth), not to mention the numerous locations visited and participants offering valuable commentary. But without organizing graphics for all this information (not even a handy family tree), a viewer can start to feel like the curious museum-goer in the back who can’t keep up, much less ask questions.

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What resonates with heartwarming clarity, however, is the nexus of characters boosting Randy, and how rewarding a genealogical quest must be in the company of like-minded souls: the cousin in Venice who wants to paint every ancestor she hears about; the haberdasher eagerly sharing his collection of ancient Jewish ledgers; the Italian scholar overjoyed to meet an American descendant of the cabalistic prophet he’s obsessed with; the Czech woman dedicated to memorializing the Jewish community that was once a fixture of her street.

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A well-meaning but slapdash travelogue, “Fioretta” does find gratifying closure in the company that the Schoenbergs find: curators of a collective memory that won’t fade on their watch.

'Fioretta'

Not rated

In English, Italian, German and Czech, with English subtitles

Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Town Center, Encino

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