For her feature film directorial debut, Natalie Portman could have tackled a far less challenging project. However, it’s clear that the Oscar winner set out to develop and create a movie that would be both a personal journey for herself and for her audience.
While the fact it is in Hebrew (with English subtitles) might be off-putting to some filmgoers, I hope it doesn’t deter anyone seeking an intelligent, artistically presented cinematic interpretation of the great Israeli author Amos Oz’s memoir of his formative years in Jerusalem at the time Israel was becoming a nation in the late 1940s. Given that Portman was born in Israel and that this story is based on such an iconic Israeli story, the actress (who also penned the screenplay) made the right language choice.
“A Tale of Love and Darkness” is deeply inspiring and focuses on the young Amos’ idealistic (if not so realistic) academic father, Arieh, and even more so on his mother, Fania (portrayed by Portman). Fania is an extremely sensitive woman who puts her vivid imagination to good use in weaving magical stories for her young son. Like many creative people, Fania also battles depression fueled by the events she and her husband have lived through. Fania and Arieh were among the lucky few who escaped the persecution of the Nazis to settle in what was then British Palestine.
The pressures of life are seen to have become a terrible burden for Fania, who has come to realize she feels trapped in a failing marriage. One escape for her is to fantasize with the son she adores — and Portman takes those stories and presents them very vividly on-screen in the various vignettes as the tales unfold before our eyes.
As the film showcases, a love of poetry and language was deeply instilled in Oz by his mother — and led to him becoming the acclaimed writer that he is.
A sad point in the film is when Fania not only faces the problems in her marriage, but also realizes the dream of an independent Israel does not provide her with the sense of joy and uplifting excitement she initially expected it would bring to her and her family.
Portman makes a number of intelligent decisions in translating Oz’s memoir for the big screen. She tells us the story quite directly from Amos’ perspective and received quite the gift with the performance of Amir Tessler, who plays Amos. The young actor emotes feelings far beyond his tender years, and without him, Portman would not have half the film she has here.
Among the heartbreaking aspects of this powerful motion picture is the sight of young Amos feeling so confused and isolated — unable to truly comprehend the collapse of his parents’ marriage, his mother’s increasingly frightening battle with depression and suicidal thoughts, or the reasons he has to face the cruelty of a world still reeling from the pathos of a horrible world war.
While “A Tale of Love and Darkness” is often difficult to watch — because of all the sadness it presents — it is also a beautiful film in that it makes us think about existing in a world where we do not completely fit in.
Focus World presents a film written and directed by Natalie Portman, based on the novel by Amos Oz. In Hebrew with English subtitles. Running time: 98 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for thematic content and some disturbing violent images). Opens Friday at local theaters.