Here at Narrative Muse, we like to highlight what we call “the best of the best.” Stuff we’d recommend. Stuff that makes us laugh, cry, and engage. Stuff that’s new and solid and innovative, that makes us excited about the potential of storytelling.
So in the interest of full disclosure, I want to say right off the bat that A Tale of Love and Darkness is not the strongest film we’ve reviewed. I’ll explain.
This Hebrew-language movie is based on the memoirs of Amos Oz, who was a child in Jerusalem in the years following WWII, when the United Nations voted to recognize Israel as a state in the Partition Plan for Palestine. His memoirs are long and winding, but largely focus on his romantic mother Fania and her battle with depression in a world full of dashed hopes and unmet expectations. Natalie Portman (Jane Got a Gun) not only stars as Fania, but writes and directs.
It has some notable flaws. The dialogue is unbalanced, a little too weighty and somber to paint an accurate picture of how real families interact. The dreamy film quality has a low-budget feeling to it. Most noticeably, the film suffers from the classic adaptation trap of adhering perhaps too closely to its original source material. It preserves great lines and moments, but often fails to reach the full potential of telling the story in a new medium.
So why feature a film with such noticeable imperfections? Why offer a sneak peak, the specs, and a way to buy it? Well, a few reasons.
It’s a passion project eight years in the making, and the debut for veteran actress Natalie Portman as writer and director. Israeli-born Portman fell in love with the Oz’s memoirs years ago, but only acquired enough funding to launch a film version after she agreed to star as well as direct. It’s easy to see Portman using some common crutches in both her writing and directing, but it’s also encouraging to see her insight, spark, and good instincts. She’s not afraid to give her audience something to sit with, even if it’s slow or uncomfortable, to truly drive home the integrity of the story. She is a sharp, professional woman, and I’m thrilled to see her entering this new realm of storytelling.
A Tale of Love and Darkness also presents a world many of us have never experienced, but still live with every day. The last survivors of “the Greatest Generation” are slowly fading away. Soon, history-changing moments like WWII and the Holocaust will only be retold in books. It’s important for people like me, who have only ever known peace in my country, to see what it’s like for your neighbor to die from sniper fire. To live in a place where war and racial tensions go back not hundreds of years, but thousands. No movie can portray those things perfectly, but this one has some really striking moments.
Also, the film’s performances and themes are truly moving. Through the eyes of young Amos (Amir Tessler), we see heartbreak and hate. He learns to navigate, if not understand, bruised egos and the ache of a bad marriage. Loneliness, abuse, bitterness, self-loathing, and even the darkest depths of depression. Portman is the heart and soul of the film, but Tessler and Gilad Kahana as her husband Arieh provide compelling performances and create a family that feels relatable, even from oceans and decades away.
In the end, I think, I recommend the film not because it’s a classic or it’s my new favorite movie. But it’s worth watching. It’s worth sitting with the ideas Oz presents, with the images Portman delivers. It’s worth disappearing into an old, old language and confronting difficult truths about life.
“A fulfilled dream is a disappointing dream.”
It’s not exactly a chipper sentiment. But what a way to think about the way we live our lives, and the way we set expectations for ourselves. Is real life ever the way we dream it will be? Is the “Promised Land” ever truly free from tears?
Maybe not. But A Tale of Love and Darkness has a spark of unwavering hope, even amidst the shadows.