Portman’s dour ‘Tale of Love’ elevates mood over plot

Gilad Kahana, Natalie Portman and Amir Tessler star in ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness.’ Photo credit: Ran Mendelson, courtesy of Focus World.

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman makes her feature-film directorial debut with “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” a Hebrew-language film adaptation of Israeli-writer Amos Oz’s best-selling autobiographical novel. 

Oz’s story focuses on his childhood growing up in Jerusalem under the British Mandate for Palestine through the early years of the State of Israel, 1945-52. It is set in a momentous time and place, but that history is filtered through the eyes of a child and the memory of an old man remembering that childhood. 

Portman also wrote the script and stars in the film, but this is no vanity project. Portman intended only to direct when she bought the rights to the book. But after years of trying to get it funded, starring in the movie simply became the practical solution, although she is about 10 years younger than the character she plays. 

Rather than focus on politics, the film is something more personal and intimate: the experience of a family living in the midst of history. And it does capture a sense of the hope for Israel held by Amos’ East European immigrant parents, particularly his mother’s romantic ideal of Zionism. Storytelling, family stories and myths, and the full meaning of language and words figure heavily in the story.

While this is a serious, literary film, respectful of the source material, Portman’s adaptation to the screen is not entirely successful. Clearly, this material spoke to her, which is reflected in her sensitive portrayal of the mother. Because  language is so important in this story, Portman insisted on making it in Hebrew, which she speaks fluently, and she worked to erase her American accent in portraying the Polish-born mother.

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The story is narrated by a 70-year-old Oz (voiced by Moni Moshonov but represented on screen by Alex Peleg), who is recalling his childhood in Jerusalem at the birth of Israel, and particularly the mystery of  his mother, Fania (Portman), who died at age 38. Young Amos (Amir Tessler) is an only child, and the family lives in a tiny basement apartment in old Jerusalem, where his father Arieh (Gilad Kahana) is a scholar of the Hebrew language. 

Amos’ parents share a love of language and words, but dreamy Fania is all about poetry and literature, while practical Arieh is most interested in etymology and the meanings of words. 

The film is stronger on mood and feeling than on plot, and historic events are filtered through the family’s experience. In one moving scene, people are gathered in the street, listening to a radio broadcast of the United Nations vote on recognition of the new State of Israel. The vote to recognize Israel sparks jubilation and hope, but the moment is brief, as war begins later that night.

Themes of love and darkness run through this film. It opens in darkness, with Fania telling a story to young Amos. Her storytelling continues throughout the film, as she recounts family anecdotes and imaginative tales illustrated in little fantasy sequences. 

Shot on location in Jerusalem, the film creates a strong sense of the city in the late 1940s. Director of photography Slawomir Idziak uses a documentary–like style and desaturated color for most scenes, but a more colorful, lush palette for the storytelling fantasy sequences.

The film details Amos’ evolution into a writer as well as events of the founding of Israel, but much of the story focuses on Amos trying to understand his mother’s tragic story. 

Fania grew up in wealth and privilege in Poland, where she dreamed of Palestine before moving there with her mother and sisters. Her ideal is represented by a figure called the Pioneer (Tomer Kapon), a strong, handsome mix of farmer and soldier, a Zionist who will make the desert bloom. 

Instead, she marries a nerdy academic, another immigrant. And, as a young mother, lives in a cramped apartment in Jerusalem rather than the green kibbutz of her dreams. 

Arieh’s idea of Israel is more down-to-earth. He tells his intelligent, sensitive son, “You will be bullied at school but not because you are Jewish,” a far more modest ideal for the Jewish homeland than his wife’s romantic one. 

 Portman is often touching as Fania, but all the acting is very restrained and subtle. We never really get inside the head of anyone but the narrator. Portman strives to be faithful to the book, which may have held her back as a director. 

“A Tale of Love and Darkness” is a dark and moody film, and moving at times. But some viewers may find the film too emotionally dour.