Natalie Portman takes a huge chunk of ambition and runs with it as the writer, director, and lead actress behind A Tale of Love and Darkness, a feature based on Amos Oz’s coming-of-age bestseller. This is Portman’s feature writing and directing debut, and thanks to her deep connection to the material the narrative is infused with a self-assured and subtly evocative flair.
Shot entirely in Jerusalem, the feature centers on Amos’ (Amir Tessler) close-knit relationship with his imaginative and passionate mother Fania (Portman). A natural and captivating storyteller, Fania’s unconditional love for her son is tempered by a loveless marriage to her librarian husband Arieh (Gilad Kahana). While Fania’s ability to weave tales out of thin air captivates Amos, Arieh’s dedication to the forming of the State of Israel also provides him with a grounded sense of identity.
Credit goes to Portman for shooting the film in Hebrew with subtitles, and although some of the more intriguing aspects of the film deal with a recreation of Fania’s surrealistic tales, A Tale of Love and Darkness gives viewers a realistic portrait of Amos’ understandably troubled childhood.
Another creative coup for Portman was enlisting celebrated cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (Gattaca, Black Hawk Down, and the highly underrated The Journey of August King), as he infuses the film with a few eye-catching, visual flourishes which, within the context of Fania’s imagination as well as deteriorating mental state, doesn’t seem out of place or showy.
What is evident behind A Tale of Love and Darkness is Portman’s appreciation for Oz’s own early journey as a writer, a life that was partly borne out of tragedy and an enduring resilience.
Since Amos is an understandably passive character (as a writer, Amos observes everything around him), Amir Tessler has the difficult task to project an interior life simply through body language and his expressive eyes. Some actors can completely pull it off while others exist as completely blank ciphers, and fortunately the charismatic Tessler delivers a solid performance.
A heartfelt and assured directing debut from Natalie Portman, A Tale of Love and Darkness (98 minutes, PG-13) is a coming of age story that refuses to pull its punches, no matter what tale is being told.
*** A Tale of Love and Darkness opens in select theaters August 19.
I also discussed A Tale of Love and Darkness, as well as my love for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall drama To Have and Have Not, on this week’s CinemAddicts podcast. Check it out below: