Natalie Portman in a scene from the film A Tale of Love and Darkness. (photo by Ran Mendelson/Focus Features via houstonchronicle.com)
A Tale of Love and Darkness may seem like a nondescript and even coyly evasive title, but in fact it expresses the essence of Natalie Portman’s textured film of Amos Oz’s book.
An unfailingly sensitive though necessarily compressed adaptation of Oz’s acclaimed 2004 memoir, the movie portrays Oz’s nurturing yet fraught childhood with his immigrant parents in Jerusalem in the years just before and after the declaration of the state of Israel.
In the film, Amos possesses both character and potential, but there are rocks in the path of every promising child. Almost every frame of A Tale of Love and Darkness is imbued with a brooding, ominous tension that derives in various measure from Old Country suffering, the nascent nation’s Holocaust trauma and Amos’ mother’s depression.
Shot in a hard-edged, anti-nostalgic palette of black and green, the story unfolds in a constrained world where both the past and the future exert immense weight on the present. That said, Portman infuses her richly engrossing feature directorial debut with welcome dashes of poetry and humor.
Amos (Amir Tessler) is an exceedingly smart and empathetic child, instilled with a love of books and words by his academic father Arieh (Gilad Kahana) and an appreciation for the allusive power of fables by his quietly adoring mother Fania (Portman).
Because the viewer (likely) knows that Amos will grow up to be a great writer, we immediately presume that Arieh is his primary influence. In one of the film’s most rewarding turns, we come to realize that Amos received the gift for storytelling from his mother.
Amos doesn’t make that connection either, until much later. Even an observant child can’t recognize or understand the import of most events as they happen, whether they are as familiar as his paternal grandmother’s perennial disapproval of Fania or as dangerous as foraging for empty bottles on the outskirts of Jerusalem during the War of Independence.
Although Fania, Arieh and Amos are tightly connected, they also inhabit private universes. Arieh is subsumed by his goal of being a popular scholarly author, first reveling in the publication of his esoteric debut and gradually frustrated by the reality of his modest place in the world.
Fania’s inner life is deeply mysterious, with dark memories of her youth in Poland alternating with curious dreams, or fantasies. She has a recurring vision of a hunky, sandy-haired kibbutznik, a “new Jew” and the diametric opposite of her husband, who is a spiritual descendant of the yeshivah bochers of the shtetl.
Amos, who was born in Jerusalem – as was Portman, more than four decades later – tries to make sense of everything, from the late-night United Nations vote for the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel, to the Neanderthal schoolyard bullies who take his sandwich, to his mother’s catatonic fugues.
The film’s guiding light, Amos navigates this terrain with uncommon aplomb and resourcefulness. The impact of A Tale of Love and Darkness, though, is in its evocation of the currents of memory, sorrow, dread and pride that swirl through Jerusalem’s streets.
The elderly Amos (voiced by Moni Moshonov), a welcome albeit melancholy presence, provides occasional, wise narration about his city, as well as his parents.
“Jerusalem,” he muses at one point, “is a black widow who devours her lovers while they are still inside her.”
It’s a metaphor, yes, but it could be a synopsis for a parable that Fania might tell Amos. Ultimately, A Tale of Love and Darkness is about the power – and the limits – of stories to change our lives.
A Tale of Love and Darkness (in Hebrew with English subtitles) opened last week at Fifth Avenue Cinemas.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.