Israeli author Amos Oz’s 2002 memoir “A Tale of Love and Darkness” chronicled his upbringing in Jerusalem during the early days of Israel’s statehood. Despite the major generational events captured from the story’s intimate perspective, however, the adaptation by Natalie Portman in her Hebrew-language feature-length directing debut feels uniformly hollow.
The actress-turned-filmmaker, who also stars in the role of Oz’s troubled mother, does a serviceable job of elaborating on Oz’s generational perspective as it pertains to modern history of Israeli citizenry. But while this trajectory holds some appeal from an analytical perspective, Portman’s screenplay shortchanges the dramatic potential of the material in favor of a by-the-numbers period piece. Though Oz’s ruminations on Israel’s evolving statehood certainly sit at the forefront of the material in compelling fashion, “Love and Darkness” doesn’t do much to make them stand out.
Mostly set in Jerusalem during the late forties, but narrated by the adult Oz, “Love and Darkness” tracks young Amos (Amir Tessler) recalling his parents’ stormy background as European refugees in addition to their troubled marriage, the result of varying responsibilities. As the maternal figure who clearly left a mark on Oz’s storytelling talents, Portman is credibly restrained, a bored housewife for whom the possibilities of a fresh life due to Israel’s newfound statehood never materialize. Unsurprisingly, she’s also the strongest vessel for the movie’s most intriguing ideas culled from Oz’s work.
As Amos recalls, his hoped for the ability to become “the pioneer as poet,” living off the mythological land of milk and honey in eternal happiness — not contending with her stern husband (a wooden Gilad Kahana), a writer absorbed by his work and individual pursuits. When he eagerly announces he’s joined Israel’s national guard, his wife’s muted reaction says everything about the national identity crisis plaguing Israel’s citizenry to this day.
Unfortunately, these sequences come secondary to meandering scenes of Amos’ childhood, whether he’s engaging in awkward playground sessions or holing up with his family during the six-day war. While these events may represent the freewheeling nature of Oz’s memory banks, they never coalesce into a compelling journey. The ponderous narrative gains nothing from the well-wrought but uninspired grey-toned look that blankets every scene. And while lines from Oz’s elders stand out in his mind for good reason — “your innocence will never abandon you,” he’s told — as spoken dialogue, they only draw out the artifice of a young boy learning about the world that forms the all-too-obvious arc of the story.
The more intriguing hook obscured by Portman’s unremarkable direction revolves around Oz’s cross-generational perspective on the shift from his parents’ idealism to his own pragmatic understanding of the country’s future. A brief cutaway to archival materials during the war, as well as a fleeting closing shot of Oz himself, take “Love and Darkness” beyond the constraints of straightforward plotting. For the most part, thought, the movie suffers turning its hefty topic into a formula.
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.
“A Tale of Love and Darkness” premiered out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.