Natalie Portman lifts her Hebrew-language directorial debut from Israeli scribe Amos Oz’s 2002 memoir of the same name that chronicled his upbringing in Jerusalem during Israel’s early days as a state. After she met Oz, whose mother she plays in the film, Portman spent eight years writing the movie and securing funding to keep it in Hebrew. Her namesake should be enough to secure the film distribution—but does this herald a promising directorial career?
Cannes reviews, below, have been mixed. While The Guardian compares Portman’s efforts to Angelina Jolie’s “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” also a personal passion project and also lukewarmly received, other writers like Indiewire’s Eric Kohn fear this is a “bland, earnest period piece,” the kind of film you might call handsomely made — but emotionally bereft.
It’s perfectly obvious why Oz felt compelled to honor his mother Fania’s memory in print, but not necessarily as clear to understand why Natalie Portman felt so fiercely drawn to the character — to the degree that she spent years developing Oz’s melancholy memoir to be her feature writing-director debut, in which she also plays Fania herself. Most likely, it was simply a case of her being touched by Oz’s work and wanting to share that emotional experience with others, though her drearily empathetic film lacks whatever universality has made “Tale” such an international phenomenon, and will rely on Portman’s name to attract interest beyond Israel.
There are key moments where Portman shows definite potential as a filmmaker — a mysterious set of opening shots that set the stage for nostalgia and the penultimate image of a kibbutz at sunset suggest a calculated eye behind the camera. But as the idealistic vision of Israeli living harbored by Oz’s mother makes clear, potential simply isn’t enough.
Portman herself plays Fania: it’s a controlled, queenly performance, her intense glamour remaining entirely intact even during Fania’s most raddled moments… But it’s on her achievement as a director that her role in this film will be judged, and it’s accurate to say she has done an impressive job, easily the equal of Angelina Jolie… Portman has made a film with something serious and interesting to say about Israel, a nuanced portrait of the place that demonstrates a commitment to, and connection with, her home country. This is an assured, heartfelt debut.
the book is a rich treasure trove of stories – writer and director Portman’s film seems conflicted over whether it is about young Amos or his mother, whom she portrays as a beautiful, cultured woman with a head full of romantic fantasies. Although it is the film’s central storyline, the mystery behind her suicide remains just that, a mystery, and leaves an after-taste of unsatisfied melancholy behind.