Natalie Portman’s feature length directorial debut carries both dreamlike beauty and a somber reality that frequently seem at odds with one another. Just as young Amos (Amir Tessler) gets swept up in the power of his mother’s stories it is easy to fall under the spell of Portman’s vibrant visual eye. There is a confidence in her direction that is undeniable. She is clearly not afraid to let her characters wallow in the gloom of uncertainty that has befallen their lives.
The rushing wave of tragedy that consumes Amos and his family also absorbs Portman as well. Similar to a diver in a bleak coral reef, she becomes so obsessed with the thick melancholy that she forgets to pull the audience up for air in the process.
Adapting the award-winning memoir by Israeli author Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness takes place just as the British Mandate for Palestine is ending and the State of Israel is forming. The film follows eight-year-old Amos as he observes both the change in the political landscape and in his parent’s, Fania (played by Portman) and Arieh (Gilad Kahana), marriage. Refugees who initially fled to Palestine for safety, the couple find only further hardship as the tensions between Arabs and Jews increase.
Fania, in particular, struggles with the uncertain political climate. Born into an affluent family, that spawned her love for literature, she has trouble adapting to the impoverished life that she and Arieh now lead. Her growing depression and rapidly declining health only add the sullen atmosphere of the house.
Told through Amos’ impressionable eyes, the film is as much about his relationship with his mother as it about a society on the cusp of great change. The film presents a mother’s love as something that transcends tragedy. It nourishes the soul and provides light and strength in a world surrounded by destruction and hate. Portman is wonderful as the matriarch Fania, drawing the viewer’s attention through subtle gestures that convey a wealth of emotions. The performance is so good that it almost overshadows the solid work of her young co-star.
While the performances are sound and the visuals are strong, A Tale of Love and Darkness’ melancholy becomes unbearable at times. Even the brief moments of joy in the film feel anything but. Furthermore, despite acknowledging where his love for storytelling came from, one does not walk away with sufficient insight into what made Oz’ works in later years so captivating for audiences around the globe. The film spends so much time on this one particular period of his life that his teen years, a key time in his life of personal changes in regards to growth and beliefs, feels like an afterthought.
Clearly a passion project for Portman, who also wrote the script, there is a directorial confidence on display that will have audiences eager to see what she does next. However, those looking for greater insight into Amos Oz or the early State of Israel will feel slightly disappointed. Make no mistake, there is much to love here, it is just frequently overwhelmed by the relentless and dreary darkness.