A Tale of Love and Darkness

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 19, 2016

'Love and Darkness'
'Love and Darkness'  

There are some stories you outgrow, and others you can spend a lifetime pondering. Israeli author Amos Oz (born Amos Klausner) took on the story of his mother's suicide in his memoir "A Tale of Love and Darkness," and now Natalie Portman, in her feature directorial debut, translates his memoir to the screen.

Portman, who also wrote the screenplay, stars as Amos' mother, Fania, playing opposite Gilad Kahana, who portrays Amos' father Arieh. Amir Tessler also stars, as the young Amos.

The film begins in 1945, with the family living in Jerusalem. (They would later relocate to Palestine.) The world is still a frightening and unsettled place for Jews of European extraction (Arieh was from Lithuania and Fania from Rivna, once part of Russia but later the Ukraine.) Jittery about their safety, the family stay in touch with relatives in Tel Aviv, phoning at pre-determined days and times, just to be sure.

Amos has a chance to observe not only his parents' reaction to the state of the world, but also the anxieties of a childless couple for whom he serves as apart-time surrogate son. His linguist father, in explaining the etymological connections between Hebrew words for "darkness," "forgetting," and "childlessness," provides the title with clarification and resonance. Ariel also explains to Amos the way an idiomatic expression for forging forward into the future stems from a word that denotes looking back at the past; it's here that we -- and Amos, too, we suspect -- begin to understand the role that the stories Fania tells her son play in his conception of the world. To understand one's self, one has to go back not just to memories of personal experience, but to the lore that has shaped one's cultural and familial, as well as individual, identity.

When Israel gains its own nationhood in 1947, initial jubilation is doused by the violent pushback that erupts. Arabs see Jews as a new incarnation of Western imperialism; Jews see Arabs as still another existential threat, or, as narration voiced by an older Amos (Moni Moshonov) distills it, "Nazis in disguise." Urban warfare becomes, for a time, the order of the day, until the emergence of a tentative peace.

Life at home is another sort of warfare. Fania suffers from depressive episodes; there are hints that Arieh is a horndog. (Seeing his first book, an academic tome about literature, has yet to sell, he expresses his jealousy and admiration to a fellow author that he does not, like his friend, sell out in short order and then enjoy the attentions of fawning female fans.) In one mystifying encounter, Amos overhears his mother telling his father to go out and play, but to be careful of women who "aren't as honest as you." A little later, after having discovered that he can allay bullying at school by offering his would-be tormentors serialized adventure stories of his own invention, Amos stumbles upon a cruel truth: He spies his father holding hands with a young woman other than his mother. Portman's attention to detail pays off here, as in many other moments, as the shattered boy runs home, passing a collection of signs we've glimpsed earlier, some of them reading ABANDONED PROPERTY. That, we grasp, is how Amos feels, and it's also the identification he projects onto his mother.

Similarly, Amos injects himself, into his mother's stories, casting imaginary versions of himself in the narratives she imparts. It's true to life, and it's a poignant bit of groundwork for a climactic payoff later on, when the boy re-visits his mother's stories with fresh understanding made possible by tragedy.

This is a deceptively complex and layered film, calm and dense and fraught with unease. As screenwriter and director, Portman shows that she knows how to fit the bones of the story together, and how to flesh them out with subtle moments that conjure a child's wonder but also unearth an elder's still-smoldering pain.



Fania :: Natalie Portman
Arieh :: Gilad Kahana
Amos :: Amir Tessler
Voice of Voice of Old Amos :: Moni Moshonov
Israel Zarchi :: Ohad Knoller
Al Hilwani :: Makram Khoury
Haya :: Neta Riskin
Old Amos :: Alex Peleg
Tsvi :: Rotem Keinan
The Pioneer :: Tomer Kapon
Mr. Licht :: Vladimir Friedman
Colonel Yan :: Henry David
Grandma Klausner :: Dina Doronne


Director :: Natalie Portman
Screenwriter :: Natalie Portman
Producer :: Ram Bergman
Producer :: David Mandil
Executive Producer :: Nicolas Chartier
Executive Producer :: Allison Shearmur
Cinematographer :: Slawomir Idziak
Film Editor :: Andrew Mondshein
Original Music :: Nicholas Britell
Production Design :: Arad Sawat
Set Decoration :: Noa Roshovsky
Set Decoration :: Salim Shehade
Costume Designer :: Li Alembik
Casting :: Hila Yuval

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.