Film Review: A Tale of Love and Darkness

Despite a shaky script based on Amos Oz’s beloved memoir, Natalie Portman’s assured and austere directorial debut is richly textured with intricate history and delicate sorrow.
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Natalie Portman is one of modern-day cinema’s most versatile and striking screen talents. With A Tale of Love and Darkness, her own adaptation of the fêted contemporary Israeli author Amos Oz’s 2002 memoir (which she also directed and stars in), the Oscar-winning black swan skillfully applies her hand on the page and behind the camera for the first time and proves her chops as a filmmaker with an impressive understanding of cinematic storytelling essentials. Her debut, while occasionally stalling rhythmically and showing imprecise priorities, is richly textured with history, intimacy, and a solid sense of visual narrative. With the story of the founding of Israel through the eyes of a young Oz (Amir Tessler), Portman—acting entirely in Hebrew—profoundly reaches within for something fragile and builds Oz’s onscreen tale with pride.

A Tale of Love and Darkness starts in 1945 and follows the precocious and observant eight-year-old Amos Oz through his childhood. His parents Fania (Portman) and Arieh (Gilad Kahana) seem to live in an initially loving but increasingly distant marriage. The distress on the street between Arabs and Jews slowly reflects itself in their household too. While both Fania and Arieh love and affectionately tend to Amos, they can’t hide him from the dread that creeps into their everyday lives. In the film’s most poignant scene—which depicts what must be one of the most significant memories of the young Oz—we follow Amos as he visits a gracious and welcoming Arab family’s home with his uncle. While playing with other kids in the garden, he unknowingly causes an unfortunate accident, the aftermath of which indisputably demonstrates just how tenuous the nature of the conflict is prior to the eruption of the war of 1948.

The chronology of the film naturally covers wartime too, but in A Tale of Love and Darkness, all of that recedes into the background as the real story takes place in the poverty-stricken household of the Oz family. Our eyes and ears to the outside world are often the three characters themselves and what their family-life struggles represent in the bigger picture metaphorically. Portman occasionally indulges us with tender dialogue between Amos and Arieh, a writer with a passion to teach Amos etymology. Yet, the relationship between Amos and Fania is what’s at the epicenter of the film. The mother and son often make up entire stories from a glimmer of an idea, and create their own escape from the challenges of their dreary lives, whether it be bullying suffered at the hands of an intolerant mother-in-law or by brash schoolboys. In fact, the most compassionate scenes of A Tale of Love and Darkness are those shared by the mother and her son: a complex relationship of multitudes that might in some ways resemble Portman’s connection to her motherland Israel, her birthplace.

The film’s (at times, to a fault) focus on Fania unsurprisingly provides Portman ample opportunities to exhibit her artistic range in front of the camera. True to the cold, distant tone and color palette of her film, Portman’s presence lingers on the screen like a fond, remote memory: alluring, majestic and unattainable. When her character dreams of a fairer life or a different type of spouse—the images of which renew her endurance and fortitude—and then suffers a decline in health (she passed away in her 30s), Portman’s performance is simply otherworldly.

The most frustrating aspect of A Tale of Love and Darkness is the staccato nature of the script. You will find yourself longing for the battle outside to assume the foreground role at times. But that desire will often go unrequited, as Portman’s script sometimes abruptly cuts away from key points of interest and chases high-minded themes and metaphors instead. Moreover, Amos, despite having written the memoir, is curiously left as a bit of an outsider here too. (His old self appears mostly as a voiceover here.)

But A Tale of Love and Darkness is still as sure-handed a debut as one can get. Under Portman’s smart direction, cinematographer Slawomir Idziak employs the economies of film narrative in his gorgeous photography well and sensibly weighs what his camera should reveal versus hide to underscore a situation. To Portman’s greatest credit, she ensures her austere film grasps and illustrates Israeli sorrow almost therapeutically. This is a film with tears on the verge of falling and an elegy at the tip of its tongue.

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