Growing up at a time of tumultuous transition from Mandatory Palestine to the creation of the state of Israel, Amos (Amir Tessler) gets a semblance of normalcy thanks to the efforts of his imaginative mother, Fania (Natalie Portman), whose collection of stories never fails to tickle his imagination. She also plays the role of the supportive wife to his father, Arieh (Gilad Kahana), a struggling writer with an overbearing mother who is not so fond of her daughter-in-law. As depression eventually sets in, Fania finds herself in a state of perpetual gloom, slowly losing her zest for life. Her son continues to be her daily companion, helplessly witnessing her deterioration, both mental and physical, while trying to navigate his way around the new status quo that paints a rather uncertain picture for the years to come.
A Tale of Love and Darkness is not a bad piece of directorial debut. If anything, the odds Portman had to go through to come up with such a commercially unviable endeavor goes to show that this is more of a passion project for her, which is perhaps the best way to do something that requires a great deal of motivation. The film excels in providing vivid imagery rife with symbolism. Also credited as the screenwriter, it is quite evident that she just let her imagination run free for this project, and there is nothing wrong with that given the impressive artistry prevalent in the movie. And then, politics.
To say that Portman is brave enough to tackle such a controversial subject matter as her first directorial project is an understatement, but sometimes that brand of valor can and will just inevitably go against you in the end. There is no such thing as crafting a neutral film. The end product will always end up leaning more on one side of the argument, and that’s when things start to get tricky once the various interpretations begin to surface. Anyone who has already chosen his side on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not think twice in dismissing this movie as nothing more than a political tool to advance certain agendas. This is tragic somehow because despite the political backdrop, this is, after all, the story of a mother and her relationship with her son.
But the film is not without fault. The main narrative is almost always overpowered by the much stronger political facet of the story, particularly during the first half, before the focus abruptly shifts to Fania and her battle with depression in the second act. Perhaps the plot could have been devised in such a way that her struggle would be effectively juxtaposed to that of the political developments around her, instead of making it appear as though the existence of one was the consequence of the other, which is really the case but hey, there’s still room for some artistic subtlety, no?
There is no trouble in the acting department, except that Portman as Fania obviously steals the limelight again and again from her son, who is supposed to be the crux of the narrative. Or maybe not? I haven’t read the book yet so I wouldn’t really know. In any case, what you will remember most after leaving the cinema is Fania and her struggles, and then that of Israel. She is the star of the show, after all. This is Tessler’s first movie and he does a great job portraying his role. Perhaps this says a lot about Portman’s potential as an actor’s director. As for the other aspects of filmmaking, well, she has a lot of time to learn, and her interaction with other directors, screenwriters, and co-actors in her other film projects won’t be detrimental at all to her development as a filmmaker.
This movie will have various effects on different people. For the uninformed, it is safe to say that augmented curiosity might very well be the endgame, given my firsthand experience on skimming through Wikipedia articles about this conflict until the wee hours of the morning after leaving the theater. But then again, politics aside, it’s a good piece that highlights the struggle of a woman in her role as mother and wife, and based on that alone, Portman succeeded.