Natalie Portman came out swinging for her feature-length directorial debut, choosing to adapt Amos Oz’s harrowing memoir, A Tale Of Love And Darkness. Being a child of Jerusalem herself, Portman’s vision is deeply rooted in Israeli culture, but an unfortunate bleakness distracts from otherwise stellar technical maneuvers. You can tell that Portman shares a deep personal connection with Oz’s remembrance of Israel’s oppressive past, yet her focus on Oz’s dark, cyclical struggle lacks a certain macabre charisma that’s needed to entertain through pitch-black truths. Oz’s words perpetuate forward-thinking ideals about living life with passion, they’re just suffocated by a thick, tar-like depression that makes Portman’s first behind-the-lens effort one dry Matzah ball to swallow.
Pulling double duty, Portman also stars as Fania Oz, mother to Amos and stifled dreamer. She truly wants to be present for her husband Arieh (Gilad Kahana) and Amos, but constant headaches render her a numb insomniac. Amos cares for his mother whenever possible, while also living in a wartime state ravaged by gunfire and danger. This is where Amos begins his career as a writer, following in the footsteps of his own father. A life full of hardships helped encourage Amos to pursue something grand, and this is the story of said hardships – not the prose-laden lifestyle that followed.
As for Portman’s artistic expressions, A Tale Of Love And Darkness constantly works to heightening the mucky allure of Jerusalem’s grey, cobblestone streets. Much like Fania’s disenchanted view, there’s not much color in the world of Amos Oz – yet Portman’s shot selection works to avoid capturing the same monotone streetscapes. Rain is used to constantly dampen Fania’s mood (emotion-controlled weather), while bigger impressions are made when coupled with Slawomir Idziak’s more experienced eye for visual storytelling. A wonderful frame captures Fania mid-frolic as a massive flock of birds flies overhead, utilizing lush greens and the swirling black creatures as scenic accents that help expose a character’s core through sight, not dialogue. In this sense, Portman impresses, and proves more exciting than just a point-and-shoot filmmaker.
That said, the film’s intentions are constantly fluctuating between a young Amos Oz and his mother’s mental deterioration. A Tale Of Love And Darkness is supposed to be about Amos’ “beginnings as a writer,” but without knowing so beforehand, this subplot falls to the wayside on far too many occasions. Amos’ writing career is an afterthought, as Fania’s “condition” becomes a constant source of fantastical daydreams (based on stories she tells) and her utter disdain for a life too mundane. The “promise of childhood trampled underfoot by monotony,” as she calls it. Fania’s turn remains obvious as scenes drearily paint her worsening mindset, but Portman allows the pain to drag on, pulling audiences deeper and deeper into a stuffy haze of government-run hopelessness. Impassioned – no doubt – but to an over-burdening fault.
This morose tone morphs A Tale Of Love And Darkness into a constant chore, as we yearn for Amos’ juvenile asides to cut any tonal glibness. Portman stonily stares ahead as her beaten-down character should, but Fania’s dominating focus proves to be unbalanced in the face of Oz’s own memoir material. Scenes play like disjointed bedtime stories (as the film’s introduction sets up), and work to represent a more whimsically poetic brand of storytelling – a mission that sounds infinitely more endearing than Portman’s choppy product. We’re led into a darkness that should become less horrifying given Fania’s mentorship, only to come out feeling no change, or worse, even more disconnected than before. A tortured path with no end in sight…
We know Natalie Portman is an amazing actress, and A Tale Of Love And Darkness does nothing to discredit such facts. But as an unproven filmmaker (sans her New York, I Love You segment)? Portman simultaneously impresses and underwhelms, scoring some vivid contextual representations of the stories Oz retells, but whiffing when it comes to the film’s core message. While historic cinematics act as both a time capsule and a memoir, Portman invests a little too generously into the whole “Darkness” portion of Oz’s title – and not for the better. Strong period-happy enthusiasts may be captivated by old-school Jerusalem’s fight for freedom, but even fans of Amos Oz might find A Tale Of Love And Darkness lacking in its ability to conjure anything more than a shadowy cloud.
A Tale of Love and Darkness is an adaptation of Amos Oz's memoir that's bleak and out-of-focus, but not without some intriguing direction from Natalie Portman.