Is it possible for a movie to be tastefully over-directed? The actress Natalie Portman approaches her behind-the-camera debut, an adaptation of Amos Oz’s bittersweet 2002 memoir “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” on bended knee. Rather than a vanity project, this is a passion project, one that clearly means much to Portman as a Jew, an Israeli, a woman, and a creative artist. She has filmed the book according to its emotional meaning to her, and that’s fine. What she hasn’t done is whip it into shape as a compelling movie.
Still, not bad at all for a first time out. Oz’s memoir concerns his childhood in Jerusalem just before and after the creation of the state of Israel, when the trauma of the Holocaust was still so near that a nation for Jews staggering in from Europe seemed a notion beyond belief.
While keeping one eye on the history happening in the streets, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” is concerned with more intimate (and possibly allegorical) matters, primarily the love of the 10-year-old Amos (Amir Tessler) for his haunted, complicated mother, Fania (Portman). Born into wealth in a disputed area of Poland, she was one of the few survivors of the 1941 Sosenki massacre in which Nazis killed 23,000 Jews.
To her husband, Arieh (Gilad Kahana), a kindly academic obsessed with the meaning of words, she’s a mercurial blessing, the vision he can’t believe he married. To her son, she’s a storyteller whose tales always end up taking a turn toward death. Even the promise of Israel fails to convince her. “Our state is standing at the gate,” her husband exults. “There is no gate,” Fania replies. “There’s only an abyss.”
You might expect an actress directing herself as Fania to play to the back row, with all those messy emotions thrown out like radiant scarves. Portman, intriguingly, reins it in. The character is as much a mystery to the audience as to her husband and son; we just have had the luxury of seeing stories of ordinary madness before.
Where Portman goes for broke is in the visual look of “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” with Slawomir Idziak’s finely calibrated cinematography smothered under colored filters that tend to the gloomy blue end of the spectrum. If this is a memory play, it seems to be unfolding at the end of a tunnel, as if the filmmaker were leaning harder on the darkness in her title than the love.
The third act, with Fania sinking further into depression as her son watches helplessly, is the movie’s most heartfelt; also its most diffuse and least convincing. Much sharper are earlier scenes illustrating the no-man’s-land of a country that is not what it used to be yet still not what it will become. A sequence in which Amos is taken to visit an aristocratic Arab and briefly befriends a girl named Aisha (Salina Daw) in the garden is a miniature movie of its own, the Jewish boy speaking Arabic, the Arab girl speaking Hebrew, some teasing talk of poetry, and a glimpse of an inter-ethnic harmony that is always out there and cruelly never to be. The rest of “A Tale of Love and Darkness” is obviously dear to Portman, but this is the closest the movie comes to Oz.
A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS
Written and directed by Natalie Portman,, based on the book by Amos Oz. Starring Portman, Amir Tessler, Gilad Kahana. At Kendall Square. 98 minutes. PG-13 (thematic content, some disturbing violent images). In Hebrew, with subtitles.