In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
A Tale of Love and Darkness depicts both a time and culture in which I have no stake, and as a result, it’s tough to feel a personal connection to it. Yet it could not be more clear how personal this story is to the filmmaker, as well as to the audience for which it is intended. As a cultural and historical outsider, the experience of watching this film feels clinical at best, but as an appreciator of the medium, I can only stand awestruck at the cinematic command exhibited by first-time director Natalie Portman. She’s the real deal.
Where many new filmmakers fail, especially those helming an art-piece, is by erring on the side of style over substance. It’s how the term ‘artsy-fartsy’ was coined. Portman leaves the fartsy to the side, delivering a film that feels voluminous and honest. There is little flare, but it’s not at the expense of beauty. The early days of the Israeli state with are captured with a painterly realism that evokes the civic struggle, but also hints at the hidden beauty that its inhabitants wish to unlock. The cinematography by Slawomir Idziak (Gattaca, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) juxtaposes the washed-out greys of the ration line against the fiery reds of a handful of dream sequences, once again hinting at the hope that drives the Israelis forward.
Based on the memoir by Amos Oz, the film meanders through the more influential moments of his youth, exploring his both his relationship with his mother, and his inevitable path towards becoming a writer. Portman adapted the novel for the screen, adding an extra layer of thematic heft as she calls into question why we tell stories and how we choose which stories to tell. As a performer who’s been in show business for a large portion of her life, I can imagine she has much wisdom regarding the art of storytelling. As a credit to her narrative abilities, this wisdom hides smartly below the surface, never threatening to overtake Oz’s tale – yet there it remains, an undercurrent to the sometimes peaceful, sometime tumultuous waves of story which drive the picture.
The pacing of the film is its weakest point, but I guess it’s impossible to adapt a memoir without this problem rearing its ugly head. Few lives revolve around a single moment the way that movies do. There’s a valiant attempt made to wrap the story around the birth of the State of Israel in an effort to create an arc that simply isn’t there. As a result, the performers begin to dip into misplaced melodrama in order to add some fire to the proceedings. It mostly works, but melodrama tends to work best when it’s either so shameless that you must submit to it, or so fitting to the material that you can’t feel it at all. Here it pulses in and out, and since it’s surrounded by many sequences of beautifully realized, human interactions from truly gifted performers, the hammier moments serve as unnecessary dramatic punctuation.
And really, clinical depression is a tough thing to put on film without using melodrama. Portman does the best that can possibly be done in depicting a young mother at wits end, but it doesn’t quite come together as it needs to (and as I said, it really never does in any movie).
When all is said and done, this extremely personal project from one of our most talented screen artists is both admirable and ambitious. It’s a bit of inside baseball to Jewish culture, but that’s not inherently a bad thing. It just means that to fully enjoy the film, you may want to do a little reading beforehand. But even if research isn’t your thing, A Tale of Love and Darkness is worth seeing just to get on board with Natalie Portman as a director before the ship sails. Great things are coming. She’s pulling a Redford.
A Tale of Love and Darkness opens in Philly theaters today.