A Tale of Love and Darkness (2015)

  • Time: 95 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | History
  • Director: Natalie Portman
  • Cast: Natalie Portman, Makram Khoury, Shira Haas


Based on the international best-seller by Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness is the story of his youth, set against the backdrop of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine and the early years of the State of Israel. The film details the young man’s relationship with his mother and his beginnings as a writer, while looking at what happens when the stories we tell, become the stories we live.


  • Amos Oz’s memoir of his mother’s enlivening imagination, disenchantment and mortal despair is a riveting human drama. But the film’s widest import may relate to its backdrop — the emergence of the new state of Israel from the violence of the last days of the British Mandate through the surrounding Arab nations’ determined attempt to eliminate her.
    The two threads share a tragic theme, enunciated toward the end: the inevitable disappointment when a dream is realized. Both for the Oz family and the Jewish people, having a dream enlivens them and gives them the hope and the spirit to continue in the face of terrible experiences. But when the dream comes true it can prove more complicated than expected, even compromised, possibly lost.
    Amos’s father Arieh is a librarian hoping to become a successful novelist. His first novel promises his dream may come true. The smell of the ink is an idea — publication — made material. But the only copies sold are, secretly, to his friend.
    When the Arabs’ attack drives everyone in the building into the Oz flat-turned-bomb shelter, when mother Fania’s best friend is killed, when daily life shrinks to fear and scrounging, the family suffers the real consequences of the Israeli dream of statehood. The dream that has sustained the suffering Jews for centuries has come painfully true.
    When Fania and her extremely privileged family were forced to flee to Israel, she married Arieh, seduced by his words and confident in his ambition. Her marriage dissipates the romance. Her only surviving ardor is her total love of her son.
    When Arieh comes home in his new National Guard uniform he seems a comic figure, mock heroic. Fania envisions a handsome young man driving a garden stake into the earth, in place of her bespectacled husband. The penetration is personal and political, fertilizing her and the land. He reappears in a flowing tallis amid the desert mountains, enveloping her in a vision both passionate and political. At the end, her ineluctable drive to suicide takes his form as an embracing lover. She kills herself because her romantic dream cannot accommodate her disappointing reality.
    Arieh adjusts. When Fania turns him away he falls into a relationship with another woman. He lives the bathetic romantic alternative she heroically imagines. He can’t understand his wife and the forces that compel her. “She punishes herself only to punish me.”
    He may be the writer but the inspired imagination lies in Fania. Her bedtime stories and life lessons teach Amos to deal with a dangerous reality by telling a story. Fiction sustains the dream even against real enemies, whether the schoolboy thugs who rob and beat him or the Arab nations bent upon another Jewish genocide.
    Amos grows up as both parents’ son, their combination. As a child, he shared his father’s love for fresh ink but initially recoiled from the suggestion he might become a writer. He saw the writer unable to help his wife. He’d prefer to be a firefighter or dog poisoner, a curious polarity of helping and killing. He leaves the family to join a kibbutz but he can’t escape his mother’s legacy, the imagination, the compulsion to tell a story, to sustain a dream. Bronzed like a kibbutznik he remains pale within, the librarian’s son, ever more comfortable riding a typewriter rather than a tractor.
    Novelist Oz is a leading voice on the Israeli left. For all her register as his memory of his treasured mother, Fania’s political significance may embody Israel’s need to realize that a dream must be inflected and adjusted if its essential values are to be sustained in an unyielding real world.
    In a tragicomic replay of this theme, both mothers-in-law refuse to accept the marriage. Arieh stolidly sits by when his mother mercilessly snipes at his wife. In the face of Fania’s mother’s more vicious abuse Fania can only shrink, then release her frustrations and anger — by slapping herself. She hastily repairs to the washroom to hide her tears from Arieh and Amos. Some pains lie beyond the imagination to escape. Both older mothers are yiddische mommas — with fangs.
    So too the political resonance of Fania’s moral lessons to young Amos: “If you have to choose between telling a lie or insulting someone, choose to be generous…. It’s better to be sensitive than to be honest.” This coheres with Arieh’s optimism: “You can find hell and also heaven in every room. A little bit of evilness and men to men are hell. A little bit of mercifulness and men to men are heaven.”
    That’s the point of the film’s single scene of Arab-Jewish community. “Lent” to a childless Jewish couple, little Amos is taken to an important Arab citizen’s soiree. In the garden he strikes up a conversation with a little Arab girl. They speak each other’s language; there is hope. In his comfort Amos climbs a tree and hangs on the chains of the swing, playing at the Tarzan he has read about and will deploy in his defensive stories.
    A link breaks, the swing falls, injuring the girl’s younger brother. It was an accident, only an accident, but it spreads into an unbridgeable abyss. Amos sees the little girl being severely scolded. For negligence? For befriending the Jew? Any difference between those reasons disappears. Arieh phones to reiterate his apology and regrets, to learn how the little boy is doing, to offer to pay the full costs of the lad’s treatment — but is rebuffed.
    The imagination that can overcome gaps between people can also create them. Oz writes for the Israeli side in this historic cycle of hatred and suspicion. He warns against the possible contamination off their dream with evil and their abiding need for mercy. It will take much mercy if the dream of love is to survive the darkness.

  • If nothing else, Natalie Portman’s choice to take on Amos Oz’s A Tale of Darkness, a personal perspective on the political turbulence of Israel’s early years, displays a passionate affinity not only to Oz’s work but to her home country to which her directorial debut serves as a love letter. It’s an ambitious undertaking, made all the more brave for her decision to tell it entirely in Hebrew, but ultimately a somewhat noble failure.

    Narrated by the adult Oz as he reflects upon his childhood during the early Forties when Israel was under British rule, the film focuses on his parents Arieh (Gilad Kahana) and Faina (Portman), who represent differing views on the present and future state of the country. Arieh is a writer, overly serious and nationalist in his sentiments. Faina, raised with some privilege in Poland, dreamt of living in the land of milk and honey with a strong man by her side. Her actual reality, with the exception of young Amos (Amir Tessler), has been one of bitter disappointment. Disapproval surrounds her at every turn, both sides of her family pelt her with critical slings and arrows, and the fantasies on which she subsisted are nourishing her no longer.

    From her son’s point of view, his mother’s dread becomes a premonition of Israel’s ensuing violence and moral uncertainty. Though he takes on his father’s vocation, he is his mother’s son, well aware that change is mere perception. “A fulfilled dream is a disappointed dream,” he concludes, and it’s a statement that faintly echoes his early assessment that “Jerusalem is a black widow who devours her lovers while they are still inside her.” Even a seemingly hopeful sequence in which young Amos connects with an Arab girl during a party is underscored with the tensions that are never too far from the surface.

    For all of Portman intriguing insights (she also wrote the screenplay), she cannot quite make the blend of the emotional and the intellectual coalesce. Perhaps the film is too reverential for its own good. Shot in deeply dolorous tones, A Tale of Love and Darkness works best when it gives itself over to a more literary poeticism, such as images of Faina in a desert landscape surrounded by swarms of birds. Even a simple image of the elderly Oz as he notes that he is now old enough to be Faina’s father has a stirring resonance that is noticeably absent for most of the film.

    Nevertheless, Portman shows great potential as a filmmaker and her portrayal of Faina as her radiance curdles into despair is moving and heartfelt.

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