Natalie Portman Elicits Strong, Unsentimental Performances in ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’

Portman captures both the individual and national struggles to find sanctuary in the contested lands that became the state of Israel.

For her first foray as a writer and director, Natalie Portman has made the audacious choice to film A Tale of Love and Darkness, the memoir of Israeli writer Amos Oz. Returning to her natal Israel, and assuming the leading role of Fania, Oz’s mother, Portman deftly captures both the individual and national struggles to find sanctuary in the contested lands that became the state of Israel.

Almost every scene in the city occurs in a cramped corner or alley, crowded not only with people but also fantastical rumors and existential speculation.

Toward this end, Portman elicits strong, unsentimental performances from her actors, especially from Amir Tessler as the young Amos. These are set against the film’s recreation of the impoverished, if intellectual, milieu established by the educated, cosmopolitan Jews who migrated from central and Eastern Europe to Jerusalem. Some writing and directorial choices, such as the commentary by a contemporary Oz (played by Moni Moshonov and Alexander Peleg) and revelation of key plot points dissipates some of the book’s key tensions. But the look of the film, in carefully selected scenes from Oz’s abundant text, inject a compensatory sensual resonance into this family story.

Both of Oz’s parents emigrated to Palestine with their families in the ’30s, when Britain still ruled the region under a mandate from the United Nations. Driven by anti-Semitism and losses during the Depression, the families hoped for a new beginning in a freer land, living with other Jews. When the film begins, with Amos in elementary school, such dreams have already crumbled against the implacable realities of migrant life. Instead of being a professor of literature, Arieh (Gilad Kahana) works as a librarian at the university, and writes in his spare time, while Fania flees domestic drudgery for romantic daydreams, fiction and folk tales, and a promiscuous nostalgia.

These hopes are translated in part by Slawomir Idziak’s eloquent cinematography. A palette of almost sub-aqueous blues, greens, and ochers floods the screen with the family’s battling aspirations and disappointments. In his book, Oz described the two-roomed basement apartment where he grew up as resembling life in a submarine, where his parents economized by using the dimmest bulbs possible, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of books, symbols of the intellectual life of European Jewry. Here, close shots of individuals in small spaces suggest that liminal zone, eliding status and experience. Careful compositions present Arieh writing at night in a pallid pool of light, overshadowed by dim, serried shelves of books, or the ailing Fania, cupped in a mahogany armchair, wan in the thin stream of light that enters the living-room’s only window.

The apartment occasionally stands in for the crowded city under siege, physically and psychologically, for all of Oz’s early life, first during the 1936-1939 Arab revolt, then during World War II, and finally through the tense last years of the British mandate and the war that followed the UN vote in 1947 in favor of the establishment of the state of Israel. Almost every scene in the city occurs in a cramped corner or alley, crowded not only with people but also fantastical rumors and existential speculation. Would the socialist Ben-Gurion trade Jerusalem to the Arabs to preserve the rural kibbutzim? Would the next detonation be the one that killed a friend or neighbor, or obliterated Fania, waiting for her share of rationed, bloody chicken?

For the young Oz, light is elsewhere, in the lush Arab townhouse garden he visits with his father’s friends, in the tales and daydreams of his mother, often shot in a lush gold, and in the magic of his father’s disquisitions on the etymology of Hebrew, Imagination offers a double-edged escape, and Portman brings its complexities to life through the delicate interactions between Amos and his parents.

For Arieh, whatever disappointments he faces, Jerusalem is freedom, where he can envision a future. He commits himself wholeheartedly to the language of the new state, Hebrew, and shares his passion with Amos. In one key scene, after the UN vote, he slips into Amos’ bed, and recalls being brutally bullied at school in Lithuania. Honest to a fault, he admits that the bookish Amos may also be bullied, but now he will never be bullied simply because he is Jewish. However, from the early scene where the family reminisce on the slopes of Mount Scopus about Arieh and Fania’s first meeting, and Amos catches a glimpse of his parents’ tender intimacy, Fania’s imagination slowly atrophies, until even her escapist fantasies involve a solitary death.

As the confidante of both parents, Amos oscillates between them, at one moment intimate with his father, and at another comforting his sobbing mother. One of the most effective scenes in the film shows Amos tightly framed by a crowd of aggressive kids, staving them off with a cliff-hanging rendition of one of Tarzan’s adventures, and running free into the street outside. He not only escapes his tormentors, but also melds his identity as the child of European migrants with that of a fluently Hebrew-speaking citizen of the new state of Israel.

The film remains true to Oz’s decidedly unheroic and poignant refraction of the establishment of Israel. In this way, it recalls the observations of Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh, on the publication of the Arab translation of A Tale of Love and Darkness:

Weren’t both sides of the conflict totally immersed in their own tragedies, each one oblivious to, or even antagonistic toward, the narrative of the other? Isn’t this inability to imagine the lives of the “other” at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Portman’s solemn, accomplished film allows viewers to begin to imagine such lives, not simply in relation to Palestine in the ’40s, but also whenever we are confronted with the faces of migrants and refugees in our streets and on our screens.

RATING 8 / 10