Israeli film “A Tale of Love and Darkness” is frequently frustrating in its distant attitude toward its sad, depressing human tale. Here is a woman who has probably been quite unhappy throughout her gray, melancholic life which has not given any opportunity for fulfilling whatever she hopes and desires in her elusive heart, but the movie merely watches the slow, suffocating progress of her mental deterioration from the distance, while we are only left with a vague, incomplete idea of who she really is.
Maybe the problem is inherent in how the movie approaches to its story, which is based on the autobiographical novel of the same name written by Amos Oz. As old Amos in the movie reflects on his childhood years, the story is shown mainly through the limited viewpoint of his younger self, and the movie mostly keeps itself within this narrative limit while letting too many things remained in ambiguity and enigma, and this weakness is further accentuated by its unfocused storytelling and weak characterization.
It is Jerusalem in 1945, and the situation is not that good for not only young Amos (Amir Tessler) and his parents but also many other Jewish people who have tried to settle in Palestine. As the British reign of Palestine is about to be ended, Jewish people hope to establish their independent nation in the region where their ancestors once resided, but there has been the considerable objection from the neighboring Arab countries as well as the British government, and nothing is certain at present.
Nevertheless, Amos’ father Arieh (Gilad Kahana) is hopeful about the possible birth of a nation for him and his people. He tries to gain some reputation as a literature novelist to represent his future country, but his plan does not go well although he manages to publish his first book, which turns out to be far less popular than his close friend’s relatively less sophisticated book.
While he may be more academically knowledgeable, it is indirectly implied that his wife Fania (Natalie Portman) could be a better storyteller than her husband. She always has stories to tell for her son’s bedtime, and Amos loves to be with his mother and hear her stories during their intimate time on the bed, which probably influences him as much as his father’s endless fascination with the linguistic connections among different Hebrew words.
She may have her own aspiration like her husband, but we come to see that there are not many chances in her drab, isolating domestic life. She has not been that close to her mother or other family members for the reasons which remain mostly unspecified even during a painful scene in which she argues with her mother, and her husband does not help her much while usually occupied with his own business. When his parents visit their small apartment, Fania has no choice but to endure her mother-in-law’s thinly veiled criticism on the beet soup she has just cooked, and her husband is oblivious to how humiliating this situation is for his wife.
As blatantly reflected by the scene involved with Amos’ experience with one Arab family, the situation becomes very violent outside not long after the establishment of Israel is finally permitted at the UN General Assembly in 1947. The war with Arab countries soon begins, and everyone around Amos’ family has to go through a difficult time as enduring the everyday terror and anxiety of the ongoing war. While Arieh becomes more occupied with defending his country, Amos also comes to have his own little war experiences as loud explosions are frequently heard from somewhere not so far from their neighborhood.
The movie briefly makes a thoughtful observation on its dark, turbulent historical background which is still influencing both Israel and Palestine even at this point, but it does not reach to that elusive darkness hovering inside the mind of Fania, who seems to be more agitated and disturbed by the gloomy and uncertain wartime situation day by day. We can only assume that she had some terrible experiences in her Eastern European hometown during the World War II, and then we also come to wonder about how much some of her stories reflect her early life, but the movie does not give us much information about that except the recurring image of an anonymous good-looking guy she probably met a long time ago.
As Fania becomes more withdrawn from us as well as her husband and son even after the subsequent cease-fire, Amos’s coming-of-age story comes to draw more of our attention, and young actor Amir Tessler does more than holding his own place next to his more prominent co-star. While he usually looks quiet and passive in his low-key performance, Tessler gives us the believable impression of a smart, observant child with growing interest in storytelling, and he has a good scene when Amos happens to find a clever way of dealing with his school bullies through a story he improvises on the spot.
As shown from her sincere performance, the first-time director Natalie Portman, who also adapted Oz’s book for her movie, did as much as she could do with the story she is clearly passionate about. Although she fails to make it into something to engage us, the technical aspects of her directorial debut work are solid on the whole, and she is as competent a filmmaker as Angelina Jolie. I cannot recommend “A Tale of Love and Darkness” due to the bafflement and dissatisfaction which lingered on me after the screening, but let’s hope this is a modest start for better things to come from her.