For her first feature, actor/ writer/ director Natalie Portman took on a very ambitious project. Working in Israel, she adapted the childhood memoir of Amos Oz, an author often seen as the conscience of liberal Zionism. While Portman takes a large acting role in “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” playing Amos’ mother Fania, the story belongs to Amos.
At heart, it’s a male coming-of-age tale. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Fania is depicted as so fundamentally lost and mysterious that I wondered if even Portman understood her. (Granted, she wrote the script and physically incarnates this troubled soul.) Portman views Fania through the eyes of Amos, who’s depicted as a child and, briefly, as a teenager and elderly man.
“A Tale of Love and Darkness” begins in 1945 Jerusalem, shortly before Israel became a state. Amos Oz (played as a child by Amir Tessler) lives with Arieh (Gilad Kahana), a scholar who has just published a book on the novella in Hebrew literature, and Fania. Their background is Eastern European — Fania is reprimanded by relatives for cooking borscht improperly — but they escaped the Holocaust just in time. Fania finds everyday life tedious, compared to the horrors of war and the shock of uprooting herself from Europe to the desert of Jerusalem. She makes up adventure stories to entertain herself and Amos but has no real outlet as a writer, while her husband starts to cheat on her. She begins to suffer from awful migraines and slips into depression.
The Arab/ Israeli conflict — and the war that launched Israel’s existence — is dealt with gingerly. Portman obviously didn’t have the budget to stage elaborate battle scenes, so she filmed Amos wandering through some of the uglier outskirts of Jerusalem while smoke wafts in the distance and the sounds of gunfire are heard. She also uses newsreel footage to fill in the blanks.
As a child, Amos sounds like a present-day Berkeley student when talking to an Arab girl about the prospects for Arab/ Jewish coexistence. As history has shown, things aren’t so easy, something demonstrated later in a scene when Amos inadvertently injures an Arab boy with a swing. The older Amos takes a more measured view of the Arab/ Israeli conflict, realizing that a common history of suffering doesn’t make Arabs and Jews natural allies.
There’s a touch of cheap irony to the way that scene plays out. The irony gets cheaper later on when Arieh tells Amos he’ll never again be bullied for being Jewish. Sure enough, Amos gets his lunch stolen from him by tiny creeps at elementary school. Predators still pounce on prey, only now some of them are Jewish. Fania’s family seems to mean well toward her, but she winds up as prey as well, although she could have benefited from the existence of feminism or effective antidepressants.
Portman’s direction and Slawomar Idziak’s cinematography do a better job of conveying the characters’ moods than her storytelling. While she relies heavily on voice-over, Fania’s depression is better evoked by the way Idziak seems to bleach much of the color from the image at times. Elsewhere, he uses outlandishly bright yellow filters for fantasy scenes. Portman often shoots from a child’s point of view, using low angles.
It’s difficult to criticize this film without calling for an entirely different one; after all, Amos wrote the book it’s based on, not Fania. Yet it hints at another story, one more original than yet another tale of a young man finding his voice as a writer. In that other tale, Fania becomes a writer and lifts herself out of depression. That’s perhaps more optimistic than the sexual politics of ‘40s Israel warranted, but I’ll give Portman’s film the credit for letting one imagine how differently it could have turned out.
A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS | Directed by Natalie Portman | Focus World | In Hebrew with English subtitles | Opens Aug. 19 | Landmark Sunshine, 143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves. | landmarkth