One of us found A Tale of Love & Darkness to be a deeply felt meditation on mothers and sons. The other one found it uneven and lachrymose. In any case Natalie Portman’s directorial debut is nothing if not ambitious. Based on Amos Oz’s memoir of the same name, the movie focuses on a handful of Amos Oz’s formative years in Jerusalem, where his Ukrainian parents immigrated in the 1940s. Portman captures the point-of-view of young Oz using deft camerawork, most notably in a lunch scene about bad borscht. Oz’s formative years double as the formative years of the state of Israel. There’s an ironic and moving scene in which a crush of anxious Jews listen to the vote results for the “UN Partition Plan for Palestine,” after which Amos’s dad rejoices, You’ll never be bullied again! Another fine scene endearingly shows young Oz acting amusingly diplomatic around a Palestinian girl on a swing set. Portman, who adapted the memoir, keeps the story in Hebrew, which not only gives the movie authenticity but allows her to explore themes of language, e.g. the way radically different words have similar roots in Hebrew. For better or worse Portman shows that she can work with Art Film tropes and make a lyrical film. But maybe the two-hour format (the movie is shorter than that) is not right for this story. Since the movie doesn’t follow a three-act structure, slipping into melancholia two-thirds of the way in and ending anticlimactically, it may be better served as a limited miniseries like Olive Kitteridge. Portman packs the movie with dream sequences and digressions more fascinating than the main story and although she ties most of the side stories together at the end, it nonetheless feels only like the end of one chapter. Not the story.
In Hebrew & Russian.
By Alec Julian & Carrie White