For those who love the writing of Amos Oz, the Israeli storyteller’s autobiographical “A Tale of Love and Darkness” illuminates his reasons for picking up the pen in the first place, pointing to his relationship with his doting (and long-suffering) mother above all. It’s perfectly obvious why Oz felt compelled to honor his mother Fania’s memory in print, but not necessarily as clear to understand why Natalie Portman felt so fiercely drawn to the character — to the degree that she spent years developing Oz’s melancholy memoir to be her feature writing-director debut, appearing as the beatific Fania herself. Most likely, it was simply a case of her being touched by Oz’s work and wanting to share that emotional experience with others, though her drearily empathetic film lacks whatever universality has made “Tale” such an international phenomenon, and will rely on Portman’s name to attract interest beyond Israel. 

Audiences often fool themselves into thinking they know a movie star by her work, as if the roles reveal an actress’ inner soul. When the alchemy is right, they often do, although Portman has remained strangely enigmatic on this front — a clear consequence of her versatility, which ranges from her star-making theatrical role as Anne Frank to the inscutable wax effigy that is Queen Padme Amidala, which brought her the greatest international exposure. Here, in a project drawn from someone else’s autobiography, we glimpse her most personal work: a portrait of the artist as a young man that doubles as a reflection of its director’s formative influences as well.

Like Oz, Portman was born in Israel, surrounded by the stories of her immigrant family’s past, and with this film, told entirely in Hebrew, she illustrates how those ingredients come to define an artistic identity: specifically Oz’s, though we’re free to speculate upon Portman’s own attachments to the material as well. As a child, Amos (played by Amir Tessler) couldn’t imagine himself ever becoming a writer — that was the vocation practiced by his overly serious father (Gilad Kahana). “I’m not sensitive,” Amos insists, swearing that he’s more cut out for work as a farmer, or maybe a dog-killer. But one isn’t always free to decide such things for oneself. When it comes to art, certain feelings demand to be expressed.

Amos may be the film’s main character, but its focus feels firmly turned toward his parents. Theirs is a strangely loveless marriage, the sort in which Fania (Portman) never could have imagined herself. She was a romantic, raised within a certain degree of privilege in Poland, who’d pictured her life one day resembling the stuff of the literature she devoured, only to marry a second-rate writer.

In brief fantasy interludes, we glimpse the handsome partner she would have preferred: a strong, strapping lad who couldn’t be more different from the man she married. At other points, she regales Amos with stories from the old country (or, on occasion, spun from whole cloth), their endings invariably tragic, heavy with regret and the weight of wrong choices.

Portman dramatizes these tales, inserting them into a more direct re-creation of Oz’s childhood, circa 1945 — two years before the establishment of Israel’s statehood, during the window when Jerusalem was still under British mandate — and forward into the violence and turmoil that followed its independence, setting the course for the unrest that still taxes the nation today. While that historical context functions mostly as backdrop to the more intimate family story, these anecdotal glimpses into Israeli’s past are among the film’s most interesting qualities, at least as far as export is concerned.

So often, films from Israel and Palestine concentrate on the conflict between these two cultures, rather than life as it is experienced on the ground — that is, struggling to find some normalcy amid shootings and bombs. As Israeli coming-of-age tales go, though, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” lacks the vivid detail and spark of Nir Bergman’s 2010 treasure, “Intimate Grammar” (adapted from David Grossman’s novel), opting instead for a more somber portrayal of life in Jerusalem, one whose virtually monochromatic color palette has been pushed toward the dolorous blue end of the spectrum.

Whereas “Grammar’s” unique conceit was the fact its protagonist had hit a sort of pre-pubescent wall, then stopped growing, there’s no explaining why Amos doesn’t age in Portman’s film. Over almost half a decade’s time, he’s played by the same wide-eyed but somewhat wooden young actor, most likely for continuity’s sake. Then, skipping forward nearly a decade to his years in the Kibbutz Hulda, the film has him played as a young man by a striking lookalike. Portman, on the other hand, changes radically in her demeanor over the course of the film. Fania died at age 38, the narrator informs us early on, and in those last years, we see her glowing energy fade to loneliness and despair, as if the cinders burning inside her were slowly being extinguished.

With no affection from her husband — and nothing but direct hostility from her mother-in-law — Fania comes to view Amos as perhaps her only reason for living. She lavishes affection on the boy, curling up beside him in bed and telling her stories, or better yet, giving him guidelines that will serve him later, when he starts to invent his own. If Amos should ever choose to lie about someone, she instructs him, he must remember to be generous. Oz has clearly taken this advice to heart in the reverential way he later depicts Fania, now old enough to be her father. Her woes might just as easily have driven him to therapy, but in this telling, she’s a source of inspiration to him — and clearly to the writer-director-star who was so determined to play her.

Cannes Film Review: ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings), May 15, 2015. Running time: 98 MIN.

  • Production: (Israel) A Movieplus, Ram Bergman production, in co-production with Keshet, in collaboration with Avi Chai Foundation, Israel Fund for Film Production, Pais, with the support of Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts - Cinema Project, Leon Recanati Foundation, Cultural Administration, Israel Ministry of Culture and Sport, Israel Film Council, Jerusalem Film & Television Fund at the Jerusalem Development Authority, Gesher Multicultural Fund. (International sales: Voltage Pictures, Los Angeles.) Produced by Bergman, David Mandil. Executive producers, Nicolas Chartier, Allison Shearmur.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Natalie Portman, based on the novel by Amos Oz. Camera (color/B&W, widescreen), Slawomir Idziak; editor, Andrew Mondshein; music, Nicholas Britell; production designer, Arad Sawat; set decoration, Noa Roshovsky, Salim Shehade; costume designer, Li Alembik; supervising sound editor, Niv Adiri; re-recording mixers, Adiri, Adam Scrivener; visual effects producer, Raoul Bolognini; visual effects supervisor, Erick Geisler; visual effects, Temprimental Films, Fotokem; special effects supervisor, Pini Klavir; stunt coordinator, Dima Osmolovsky; assistant director, Shir Shoshani; casting, Hila Yuval.
  • With: Natalie Portman, Gilad Kahana, Amir Tessler. (Hebrew dialogue)