Exactly halfway through A Tale of Love and Darkness, we witness a large Jewish crowd gathered in Jerusalem in 1947 as they listen to the United Nations vote to partition Palestine. Essentially, it’s a vote for the creation of the State of Israel. The alphabetical roll call is read: “Syria—No; Turkey—No; Ukraine—Yes; South Africa—Yes; Soviet Union—Yes; United Kingdom—Abstain; United States—Yes.” The resolution, of course, is passed. Violence and chaos erupt in the weeks (and years and decades) ahead, and we hear the words of Amos Oz, over documentary footage of bloodshed, saying, “Only in the imagination do the persecuted unite in solidarity. In reality, two children of the same abusive father will not necessarily become allies.”
The sequence is haunting. You can’t hear those countries’ names and not think of strife in the world today. Oz, Israel’s most acclaimed living author, writes words that resonate with generosity and bitter truth. And you’ll hear a lot of them (voiced by Moni Moshonov) in this adaptation of his 2002 autobiographical novel, adapted and directed by Natalie Portman. The Oscar-winning actress also stars as Oz’s tragic mother, a gloomy, geo-political Virginia Woolf-like character named Fania, who nurtured young Amos (Amir Tessler) by telling him melancholy fables, which are visualized onscreen. In one, a soldier shoots himself; in another a heartsick woman self-immolates. Portman delivers a hushed, unmannered performance; though her directorial approach—or at least the Darkness of the title—is steeped in the heavy, morose style of a past collaborator like Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan).
And that’s certainly not a bad thing. But Portman also appears to be influenced by the recent output of another collaborator, Terrence Malick (Knight of Cups), and A Tale of Love and Darkness suffers from aimlessness and an absence of levity. Tonally, the film doesn’t quite match with the universality of Oz’s shimmering prose. Yet Portman’s evocation of this world has a strange, captivating pull. Assisted by the great Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (Gattaca, Black Hawk Down, The Double Life of Veronique), she has created a visual landscape filled with nightmares. And, in the end, in a scene that hurts your eyes because of the amount of sun, the sliver of a dream. B