The autobiography of Amos Oz, one of Israel’s best-known writers, gives structure to Natalie Portman’s sensitive if somewhat unfocused directing bow, A Tale of Love and Darkness. One can sense the literary and political affinities that link her to the novelist and spark her passion for the material. Yet strangely, the on-screen emotion feels reined in and intellectualized, to the extent that not a tear is shed over the death of the main character (who is not Oz). This noted, the setting in the early years of Israel and the high profiles of Portman and Oz are bound to spark initial interest from festivals and niche markets, particularly for viewers with literary sympathies. The premiere in Cannes as a Special Screening should also offer an initial boost.
More than a coming-of-age story about a major novelist — and the book is a rich treasure trove of stories – writer and director Portman’s film seems conflicted over whether it is about young Amos or his mother, whom she portrays as a beautiful, cultured woman with a head full of romantic fantasies. Although it is the film’s central storyline, the mystery behind her suicide remains just that — a mystery — and leaves an after-taste of unsatisfied melancholy behind.
There is no lack of drama in the setting. Oz was born in Jerusalem in 1939 under the British Mandate, and grew up in the country’s turbulent early years. The action takes place on the cusp between British rule and the birth of the nation in 1947. Aided by a bit of newsreel footage, the mood of poverty, fear and insecurity is sketched in the stripped-down set design and Slawomir Idziak’s stylish but grimly dark cinematography, which makes faces look jaundiced and detail hard to distinguish.
Yet despite the hard times they are living through, Amos’s father Arieh (Gilad Kehana), a librarian and writer, and his mother initially seem happy together. Their quiet 12-year-old son (Amir Tessler) absorbs Mom’s stories and Dad’s lessons in the etymology of Hebrew words like a sponge. Tessler brings out both sides of him, a loner who gets bullied at school and an enthusiastic participant in family life — and later, during the Jewish insurgency against the British, an ardent but innocent forager for empty bottles to be turned into Molotov cocktails.
The film’s most charming scene involves his invitation to a fancy party hosted by a well-to-do Arab family. The rarity of the visit is stressed by the instructions given to young Amos to be on his best behavior. But when he meets a self-possessed little girl with captivating eyes named Aicha, he loses his head and causes a serious accident. The scene has an easy naturalness about it that illustrates the family’s friendly respect for the Arab population, as well as both sides’ seeming helplessness to avoid violent incidents.
Perhaps because so much of the book is necessarily left out, the script has a numbing tendency to tell rather than show. The most glaring example is Fania’s illness, which starts out as a headache that won’t go away and degenerates into symptoms of severe clinical depression. They beg for a reason that will explain what is happening, but the clues on screen are frustratingly few and barely foreshadowed. Only in the end are the whys coldly listed: her wealthy background and current poverty, the destruction of the Polish town where she grew up along with everyone she knew, her romantic fantasies that have no foothold in reality. These reasons, spoken by an elderly man who is a stand-in for Amos Oz himself, wash over the audience in a shower of words where emotions are needed.
Of course, one can imagine that Fania is simply too psychologically fragile to cope with the terrible times she lives in. She tells Amos two horrifying stories, one about a young Polish officer who boarded in her house and who shot himself in the head, and another about a wife whose drunken husband gambled her away at night and who burned herself to death. Portman’s low-key performance interiorizes all Fania’s pain and humiliation, only expressing her self-loathing when she thinks no one is looking by slapping herself on the face. But Amos’s silent eyes drink in everything.
Kahana plays the father as a loving, well-intentioned family man bewildered by his wife’s illness. True, pale and bespectacled, he’s a far cry from the handsome, muscular pioneer of her dreams. But once again, the reason why she tells him to go out and have a good time on his own (Amos later sees him dining with a pretty girl) is left vague.
Portman seems fond of injecting metaphorical graphics of free-wheeling birds and apocalyptic desert landscapes, all again referring to Fania’s psyche rather than to Amos. Nicholas Britell’s musical comment is pleasingly lyrical, but used a bit too often.
Production companies: Movieplus Productions, Ram Bergman Productions
Cast: Natalie Portman, Gilad Kahana, Amir Tessler
Director, Screenwriter: Natalie Portman
Producers: Ram Bergman, David Mandil
Executive producers: Nicolas Chartier, Allison Shearmur
Director of photography: Slawomir Idziak
Production designer: Arad Sawat
Costume designer: Li Alembik
Editor: Andrew Mondshein
Music: Nicholas Britell
Casting: Hila Yuval
No rating, 98 minutes