Portman adapts Oz novel in brooding Love and Darkness

“A Tale of Love and Darkness” may seem like a nondescript and even coyly evasive title, but in fact it expresses the essence of Natalie Portman’s textured film adaptation of Amos Oz’s book.

An unfailingly sensitive, though necessarily compressed, adaptation of Oz’s acclaimed 2004 memoir, the movie portrays the author’s nurturing yet fraught childhood with his immigrant parents in Jerusalem in the years just before and after the declaration of the State of Israel.

Young Amos possesses both character and potential, but there are rocks in the path of every promising child. Almost every frame of “A Tale of Love and Darkness” is imbued with a brooding, ominous tension that derives in various measure from pre-war Old Country suffering, the nascent nation’s Holocaust trauma and Amos’ mother’s depression.

Gilad Kahana (from left), Natalie Portman and Amir Tessler in “A Tale of Love and Darkness” photo/focus features

Shot in a hard-edged, anti-nostalgic palette of black and green, the story unfolds in a constrained world where both the past and the future exert immense weight on the present. That said, Portman infuses her richly engrossing feature directorial debut with welcome dashes of poetry and humor.

“A Tale of Love and Darkness” opens Friday, Aug 26 following recent screenings at the S.F. Jewish Film Festival and its Bay Area premiere last February in the Jewish Film Institute’s Winterfest.

Amos (Amir Tessler) is an exceedingly smart and empathetic child, instilled with a love of books and words by his academic father Arieh (Gilad Kahana) and an appreciation for the allusive power of fables by his quietly adoring mother Fania (Portman).

Because most viewers know that Amos will grow up to be a great writer, we immediately presume Arieh is his primary influence. In one of the film’s most rewarding turns, we come to realize that Amos received the gift for storytelling from his mother.

Amos doesn’t make that connection either, until much later. Even an observant child can’t recognize or understand the import of most events as they happen, whether they are as familiar as his paternal grandmother’s perennial disapproval of Fania or as dangerous as foraging for empty bottles on the outskirts of Jerusalem during the War of Independence.

Although Fania, Arieh and Amos are tightly connected, they also inhabit private universes. Arieh is subsumed by his goal of becoming a popular scholarly author, first reveling in the publication of his esoteric debut and gradually frustrated by the reality of his modest place in the world.

Fania’s inner life is deeply mysterious, with dark memories of her youth in Poland alternating with curious dreams, or fantasies. She has a recurring vision of a hunky, sandy-haired kibbutznik, a “new Jew” and the diametric opposite of her husband (who is a spiritual descendant of the yeshiva bochers of the shtetl).

Amos, who was born in Jerusalem (as was Portman, more than four decades later), tries to make sense of everything, from the late-night U.N. vote for the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel to the Neanderthal schoolyard bullies who take his sandwich to his mother’s catatonic fugues.

The film’s guiding light, Amos navigates this terrain with uncommon aplomb and resourcefulness. The impact of “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” though, is in its evocation of the currents of memory, sorrow, dread and pride that swirl through Jerusalem’s streets.

The elderly Amos (voiced by Moni Moshonov), a welcome albeit melancholy presence, provides occasional, wise narration about his city as well as his parents.

“Jerusalem,” he muses at one point, “is a black widow who devours her lovers while they are still inside her.”

It’s a metaphor, yes, but it could be a synopsis for a parable that Fania might tell Amos.  Ultimately, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” is about the power — and the limits — of stories to change our lives.

“A Tale of Love and Darkness.”  In Hebrew with English subtitles. (Rated PG-13 for thematic content and some disturbing violent images, 98 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.