The pains of reality
Natalie Portman’s debut as director
A Tale of Love and Darkness
Directed by Natalie Portman
Starring Natalie Portman, Gilad Kahana, Amir Tessler
Seemingly, there is a need for popular actors to do something serious and heartfelt once in a while. After his trip to Mordor, Elijah Wood trekked to Ukraine in the film Everything Is Illuminated on a journey to seek his Jewish ancestry. After defeating Voldemort, Daniel Radcliffe took a respite from fantasy and starred in A Young Doctor’s Notebook, based on the relatively obscure diaries of the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov. Natalie Portman, in her debut as a director, has adapted Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, a coming-of-age memoir by one of Israel’s most celebrated authors. Portman, who was herself born in Israel, has a personal connection to the subject, which is felt in her loving treatment of the film.
A Tale of Love and Darkness is told through the eyes of a young Oz, played by Amir Tessler, with occasional narration by an elderly Oz (played by Alexander Peleg, voiced by Moni Moshonov), who relives the past as he strolls down the cobblestoned, winding streets of old Jerusalem. It is his mother, Fania, played soulfully by Portman herself, who is the true star of the show. Portman’s magnetic performance in her anguished role overshadows everything around her. Since childhood, Fania has been a dreamer and continues to be one in the midst of her dreary life. Her move from Poland to Jerusalem before the war and the Holocaust had always been her dream, but it hasn’t turned out the way she imagined. Although married to Arieh (Gilad Kahan), a struggling writer, Fania cannot shake the image of the strong and handsome pioneer she conjures for herself throughout her life. She draws comfort from their only son, Amos, with whom she shares her stories and fantasies.
The production is picturesque and cinematographically rich, but sometimes a bit heavy-handed. There is, for instance, a hypnotic grace and an unwarranted foreboding in the way a handful of shredded beets spread like blood when Fania adds them to borscht. There is a scene of a breaking swing, which brims with symbolism but lacks subtlety. The film is already heavy with the emotions of a distressed Fania, to which are added still more tear-jerking episodes related to the sectarian violence that accompanied the formation of Israel and that is sadly still with us to this day.
The greatest thing about this film, apart from Portman’s brilliant performance as an actress, is the manipulation of the color palette. When Fania’s realities, whether past or present, are portrayed, the colors are muted and the general impression is of a grey, perpetually overcast world. Her memories are shrouded in a soft, nostalgic fog, and in the present, there is no hope for the sun coming out “tomorrow.” Only the stories that Fania invents for herself and for her son are gem-like, infused with color and vitality. Fania’s stories are real life, while reality is simply a bad dream. When Fania departs from this world, Oz cannot shake her legacy and continues striving to live up to her dreams in the kibbutz.
Storytelling has been at the heart of Jewish culture since the times of Abraham. Any good story is a result of truth mixed with invention and exaggeration, frequently accompanied by self-deception. This poetic attitude with regard to reality permeates the art of such greats as Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Woody Allen. Overall, Portman delivers on her promise to tell us a tale and does so in a sincere and heartfelt manner. The two hours that I hope you will find the time to spend in the theater, while perhaps not falling squarely into the category of “entertainment,” will fill your mind with unforgettable stories and perhaps will turn your thoughts to the stories that you guard in your heart.