Film Review: Natalie Portman’s ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’

A Tale of Love and Darkness features Hebrew language and took eight years to write and develop. Read our review of the film below.

It is not safe to regard A Tale of Love and Darkness as a political film. Though released amid a present atmosphere of social awareness and the need for artistic validation by connecting with a ‘broader issue’, these are only incidental elements of Natalie Portman’s directing debut. The story is not about making light of a political reality and/or “choosing sides”, it’s something much more challenging: connecting with characters and telling their story, amid a deeply political reality.

Portman’s debut is an adaptation of Israeli author Amos Oz‘s memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, which takes place in Jerusalem in the last years of Mandatory Palestine and the first years of independent Israel. To this day, the Israeli-Palestinian conversation is incredibility polarizing. In part due to a ruthless media network, an entire generation has seen the ‘Arab-Israeli problem’ become inextricably tied to US and global politics. This results in feeling compelled to ‘choose a side’, or, inevitably thrown into the conversation by the mere utterance of ‘republican’ or ‘democrat’. It’s a situation that is incredibly misunderstood and complicated. But neither Oz nor Portman try to muddle through any of this with the intention of persuading one side or the other. It reveals a certain quiet privilege in the discourse on people and place and political “sides”: the privilege of having a problem remain a theoretical, though millions of people are affected by your position and opinions, if it’s not happening to me, it’s not happening at all. But reality is never this sweeping or general. In fact, mindfulness of circumstance disappears. It stops being a theoretical; it simply becomes reality. And those high-up conversations do reveal their very  Here, in A Tale of Love and Darkness, Portman addresses this on a intimate level, engaging the viewer in a small community in a densely populated Jerusalem.

A young Amos Oz (AMIR TESSLER) explores his world and his mother (NATALIE PORTMAN) at the pace of real life. It’s impressionistic and realistic, with Portman allowing the film to play out in its native Hebrew, which permits the witty exchanges and under-the-breath suggestions, a passive aggressive humor that wouldn’t have translated well. We are fortunate Portman was sensitive to language, almost a defining factor in the political reality as well as the cultural- Israel and its surroundings are incredibly diverse linguistically. Portman disposes of her American accent with grace. Her acting in the film is emotive and hyperaware, as a mother would be. But it is Tessler who reveals the vindictive and intense nature of a culture, a willingness to “smooth things over”, or rather, sweep them under the rug. It’s these moments of peaking behind the curtain of life that Oz reveals the folly of adulthood, and the childishness of pleasing others. There’s also a length series of broken promises on nearly every level, that leads to Oz’s sense of doubt, and his mother’s mounting stress. Perhaps most mislead is Gilad Kahana, who plays Fania Oz’s husband, a troubled writer; deeply reactionary (so far as to enroll in state guard) with little foresight. His performance is particularly interesting as he so convincingly offers his son wisdom and advice that if Amos didn’t know better, would have taken by virtue of rhetoric alone.

The film only occasionally dips into “political” territory, but those moments are involving the family rather than high conversation. It reveals that though politics may not affect day-to-day life, opinions and positions held can. We see this with the interactions between Palestinians and Israelis, a front lead and witnessed by none other than young Amos himself.

Suddenly, we may understand the deepest point of this film, that only with experience can understanding and true knowledge be achieved. Less broadly, recognize this was a precarious time that could tell a million stories, but for A Tale of Love and Darkness, we may only hear one, but well told at that.

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