This film is Natalie Portman’s passion project, a kind of movie so rare in formula-obsessed Hollywood that at first you might not recognize the breadth of its feeling or the scope of its ambition. Portman enters the world of Amos Oz, Israel’s leading author, through his acclaimed 2002 memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, a book in which the writer tracked his own coming of age along with the state of Israel. Portman’s film, told in subtitled Hebrew, is miles from a conventional biopic. As writer and director (this is her feature debut), she takes the point view of young Amos (Amir Tessler), a boy growing up in Jerusalem in the years before statehood. His Jewish parents had escaped the Holocaust by moving to then-British-ruled Palestine. His father, Arieh (Gilad Kahana), is an ineffectual academic and clearly not the man of his wife’s fantasies. She is Fania (Portman) the mother of Amos, and the eyes through which the boy sees the conflicts in his family and the larger one outside. Fania plays a central role in this film, and for good reason: She taught Amos the power of words, telling him stories that spin his had around. His world revolves around this nurturing force. Until it doesn’t.
It’s important to note what Portman the filmmaker is doing here. She is most assuredly not providing CliffsNotes to Oz’s book, letting us see what Amos sees and only partially understands. When Fania’s dream of a new life fails to materialize, like her dream of Israel, she drifts into a clinical depression. The stories she now tells her son — two of which involve suicide — leave him confused and alarmed. He sees her violently slapping her own face, sending her husband into the arms of another woman, sinking into silence. Beyond his increasingly unhappy home, Amos is bullied at school and persuaded by Jewish insurgents to comb the streets for bottles that can be turned into Molotov cocktails against oppressors.
Amos can’t fully comprehend the brutality of the world or the damage his beautiful, confounding, exasperating mother inflicts on herself. For a child, the effect is devastating, and Portman stages it like a gathering storm. A Jerusalem-born Harvard graduate with a degree in psychology, she is using this film to draw psychological profiles of a young child and a younger state. No sermons, no scholars to fill in the gaps, no balm to heal raw emotional wounds. We’re on our own, just as Amos was. That’s a big hill the new director is climbing, employing stark images of beauty and terror to craft a portrait of an artist in the agonizing act of becoming himself. But every frame of A Tale of Love and Darkness reflects Portman’s passionate striving and her grieving heart.