Set against the backdrop of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine and the early years of the state of Israel, this is a haunting autobiography of how a boy’s relationship with his mother shapes who he becomes and takes an unflinching look at life during 1940’s Jerusalem.
The movie is thought-provoking and heartbreaking in the glimpses it gives the viewer of life during the founding of the state of Israel, the war of 1948, and of family dynamics for the Israeli novelist Amos Oz played in the movie as a young boy by Amir Tessler. While the film does paint a view of the history of the era and the tensions between Palestine and Israel, it focuses primarily on how those elements shaped the writer and affected his mother. The title is apt imagery in describing his relationship with Fania, his mother played by Natalie Portman who also directed and wrote the screenplay. It is about the love between her and her son and the darkness of her depression.
The family interactions are quickly developed, providing us with the information that his parents escaped war-torn Europe to live in Jerusalem, his mother having met his father at University, Lithuanian-born literary critic Arieh (Gilad Kahana.) Fania is at odds with her mother-in-law who is overly critical of her. She also has a poor relationship with her own mother, who is painted as cruel. The narrative also shows that Fania’s husband is far from her ideal, showing in her visions a strapping farmer but while Amos’s parents are not demonstrative, there is affection shown between them and caring. His father is shown as intellectual and kind. But his mother is shown to be a romantic who has visions of a different life for herself that never came to fruition. She tells fantastical stories to Amos, tale of adventure that shows her love of language and her dreams of a better place. Those same stories fail her as the family experiences daily life in Jerusalem.
As it unfolds, the family struggles are woven in with the fight of Israel to become a state and the war with Palestine of 1948. The struggles of the time, rationing, poverty, the death of his mother’s friend, all have their part in disillusioning her and helping to develop a deep depression within her. The impact this has on Amos is profound, shown with deftness by the filming and the young actor’s portrayal. One of the best parts of the drama to me was how the writer told his mother’s story without hiding the truths of her condition. She is medicated, her depression explained away as sleep issues, headaches or other ailments but the truth is told here. As told by the writer’s older self (Moni Moshonov), I would have ended her story another way but it is her story to tell. And it is told by the filmmakers without flinching.
One of the beautiful elements is how language is spoken about by both parents and how the meaning of words evokes different ideas. And that idea of language, the idea of stories, is compellingly told here to brilliant effect. By Amos telling his mother’s story, he also shares his own narrative. The tale ends with the teenage Amos on Kibbutz Hulda discussing how he cannot transform himself. Just how he cannot transform is left to the viewer to decide but my husband thought it spoke to his desire to work toward peace with Palestine and how he can never change his essential nature.
There are beautiful lines here that I’m sure were in the book. One that was particularly thought provoking was ‘There is hell and paradise in any room.’ And it goes on to demonstrate this, showing both the cruelty of Fania’s mother but also the generosity of a friend of Arieh buying all his books so that he would feel like he was a success. Those quiet moments of philosophy are brilliant and were one of my favorite parts.
The movie is filmed well and the actors play their roles beautifully, the expressionism carries through well on screen. Natalie Portman’s passion for the work is clear in her portrayal of Fania. While it is dark, that enhances the film. The actions of the mother are at times puzzling but since it is told from a child’s point of view, wherein adult’s actions are sometimes incomprehensible, that adds a layer of realism. The narration begins with telling you his mother died at age 38 and this drives the rest of the story forward but when we reach her death, it felt like it lacked depth to me and did not quite have the impact that I was hoping. The impact is carried through to the character of Amos and does have a quiet beauty at the end.
If you want action and adventure, this is not for you. The ideas are not always comfortable. But it is about love, family, truth, the tension between Palestine and Israel and how the people of the time are affected by the creation of Israel and the war that developed after. It evokes compellingly the horrors of the 1948 war and the siege of Jerusalem as well as the excitement of the creation of Israel. If you want a poignant story and you don’t mind subtitles, this is the movie for you. It is beautiful and thoughtful.
Rating: 4 stars
Cast: Natalie Portman, Gilad Kahana, Amir Tessler
Written by: Natalie Portman
Directed by: Natalie Portman
Producer: Ram Bergman
Executive Producer: Nicolas Chartier
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.