Mark Reviews Movies

A Tale of Love and Darkness


2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Natalie Portman

Cast: Natalie Portman, Amir Tessler, Gilad Kahana, Rotem Keinan, Alexander Peleg, Dina Doron, Itzchak Peker, Silvia Drori, Gera Sandler, Makram Khoury, Tomer Kapon, the voice of Moni Moshonov

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content and some disturbing violent images)

Running Time: 1:35

Release Date: 8/18/16 (limited); 8/26/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 25, 2016

For about half of A Tale of Love and Darkness, writer/director Natalie Portman (making her feature debut in both roles) weaves a complex narrative tapestry of memory, unreliable recollections within memory, storytelling, prejudice, and politics within the tale of the lives within a single family. The story comes from the much-lauded memoir of the same name by Amos Oz, who lived in Jerusalem in the years before and after the establishment of the modern state of Israel. Portman captures that peculiar process of memory, as the recounting of a fairly straightforward story—of the relationship between a son and his mother against a momentous and tumultuous period of history—finds itself becoming sidetracked by smaller details.

They may not have meant much at such a time—a time during which an old nation is reborn amidst conflict between two religious and ethnic groups with a similar history. There are times in the telling that the political backdrop is vital, and there are other times when it recedes into the background, barely registering as the son listens with rapt attention to some tale from his mother. The stories may be personal recollections of her youth in Poland, before she came to Jerusalem to escape the steady rise of anti-Semitism across Europe, or they may be pieces of folklore—fables that the mother either has collected over the course of her life or makes up on the spot with the help of her son.

The son is Amos (Amir Tessler), and his mother is Fania (Portman). After a scene of the pair taking turns coming up with a bedtime story (In the scene, Portman only shows her hand, waving in the air as if the images that come to the boy's mind have been conjured by some magic she possess), the movie opens with an older Amos (Alexander Peleg plays the character, and Moni Moshonov provides his voice) walking through the streets of modern-day Jerusalem.

The elder Amos appears occasionally, tying the past and present together in a couple of striking moments, such as when a pleasant tableau of his family together in the past is disrupted by an explosion. The next shot is of the older Amos coming across the ruins of a store devastated by a later attack.

Primarily, though, the Amos of the present day exists to provide a near-constant narration that, strangely, disappears almost completely once the movie narrows its focus to Fania's story. That narration is effective, if only because it provides the movie's narrative nuance and philosophical heft. If anything, Portman's screenplay relies on that narration too much.

The rationale is clear: Much of this story exists within the minds of these two characters. It's vital, for example, that we know of Fania's childhood dream of a Jewish state. She dreams of it as a person, a pioneer (Tomer Kapon), who exists in her mind as an ideal man—a warrior, a poet, a farmer, a religious leader. Instead of that ideal man, by the way, Fania ended up with her husband Arieh (Gilad Kahana), a struggling academic with a penchant for language. The imagery here, though, exists primarily to bolster the words, instead of vice versa or co-existing.

The story proper of the main flashback begins in 1945 with the family living a quiet, comfortable life in the city, which is part of the British Mandate of Palestine. Much of the early section of the movie keeps to Fania's storytelling and the lessons that she passes on to her son through them—sometimes unintentionally. A woman betrays her husband and commits suicide after realizing that her daughter despises her because of it. A pair of monks, under a vow of solitude and silence, come across a drowning woman, leaving one to wonder if it was a sin to break his vow in order to save her. A key moral imparted to young Amos is that it is impossible to really know another person or even oneself.

It's a lesson that becomes essential in late 1947 with the United Nation's adoption of the partition plan for Palestine. As civil war erupts between the Jewish and Arab populations, archival footage of combat plays out as the elder Amos mourns the inability of two groups, both of whom have faced oppression, to recognize their similarities. Fania learns that actual tragedy is not romantic in the way it is in her beloved novels.

At a certain point here, the politics and the conflict fade from the narrative, as does Amos to an extent. Fania's struggle with mental health issues takes over, as the movie seems to forget all of the lessons it had preached earlier. Through a few returns to Amos' narration, the movie frames her depression as the result of the tragedy of seeing her childhood dream fulfilled. There's a curious, speculative romanticizing of her character that transforms Fania's stories into overt, specific metaphors for her condition.

Essentially, the material turns to melodrama, simply so that the resolution can be tied up neatly. This simplification goes against the attitude that grounds the first half or so of A Tale of Love and Darkness­—an attitude that is willing to leave things unspoken and unknown. Another of Fania's lessons comes to mind: "It is better not to know than be in error."

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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