Amos Oz is the author of twenty novels, many more works of non-fiction and short stories, and is easily Israel’s most famous literary export. He’s been published in over forty countries, has received awards around the world, and has been very vocal about the political situation in his native country. His is a rich, complicated, celebrated and controversial life, but if you have no foreknowledge of Oz, it’s very hard to become invested in Natalie Portman’s directorial debut “A Tale Of Love And Darkness.”
Based on Oz’s autobiographical novel, the film takes place across a few short years just after the Second World War, as his family settles and adjusts to life in Jerusalem. It’s a turbulent time, as politics swirl around the formation of the state of Israel, but the center of young Amos’ (Amir Tessler) world is his mother, Fania (Portman). It’s her love and guidance, as well as the events and incidents of his surroundings, that helps form the man and writer Amos would become, and this is the story the film aims to tell. Unfortunately, the script by Portman curiously backgrounds Amos in favor of Fania, and in doing so creates an emotional distance that leaves those looking to learn more about the writer disappointed and everyone else baffled by what the film’s grindingly grim tone is in service of.
There is no doubt Amos adores his mother. She’s doting and loves to tell stories, and there is no uncertainty about the bond between the pair. But this is less a relatable mother/son story than an idealized one. The dialogue is particularly overstuffed, with characters persistently speaking in stagey, unnatural parables and aphorisms, padded with pieces of wisdom for almost every situation. Perhaps the point is to indicate the imaginative and intellectual foundation in which Amos took root, which was also aided by his father, a librarian and aspiring writer Arieh (Gilad Kehana). But the result creates another layer of separation between the characters, audience and feelings Portman wishes to transmit, and it’s a crucial failing that really comes to the fore in the film’s latter half.
Fania becomes struck with severe depression, unhinging the carefully assembled domestic world she put together for Amos and Arieh. However, continuing in the film’s nearly glorified depiction of its characters, Amos easily transitions to provide his mother with attention and care she had given him for much of his life. He’s more nurse and caregiver than any relative or doctor is, and certainly handles it better than his father, who at one point tells his wife, “I don’t know how to help you.” We’re never really let in on what it might’ve been like for Amos to see his mother mentally crippled, and it’s a situation not aided by a script that gives the twelve year-old very little dialogue. Amos is an observer for most of the movie, which is an odd position for a central character, particularly one that is telling the story via flashback with intermittent voiceover. Amos narrates “A Tale Of Love And Darkness,” but rarely leads the audience into any insight on his thoughts.
As Fania continues to suffer, Amos grapples to understand why his mother is suddenly so withdrawn. But it’s only in a very last minute revelation that we learn that because Fania grew up wealthy in “the ethereal culture of misled beauty” (this is a good indication of the kind of overwrought wordplay you hear throughout the movie) of Eastern Europe, she simply couldn’t cope with the harsh realities of life in the Middle East. It’s a summary that’s not only arrived at too late but too easily, and like the rest of the film, smooths out the complexity of the characters that demand to be explored further. Even Amos’ future is not foreshadowed so much as plainly announced, with a character literally telling the young man that he will be a writer one day.
Pacing is also an issue. There is not much in the way of plot, and due to the remove between the audience and the action onscreen, “A Tale Of Love And Darkness” feels much longer than its ninety-seven minute runtime. But if there is a small takeaway of note, it’s that Portman shows an assured hand behind the camera. The direction is solid, and while various dream sequences and flashbacks are perhaps slightly overstylized, these are the traits of a first time feature filmmaker trying to create a work of distinction. Portman wants to articulate something beyond the ordinary, and while she hasn’t found it in this picture, perhaps there are lessons here to be learned before she mounts her next effort.
Most importantly, Portman would be wise not to mistake poetic language for genuine emotion or wisdom. There is a tendency throughout “A Tale Of Love And Darkness” to address knotty interactions and heated politics with pat and almost naive pronouncements. It’s not only a distraction, but an issue hampering a film that ultimately wants to parallel the coming-of-age of both Amos and Israel, creating too many easy answers in a life and state where there are so many more questions to come. [C-]