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With: Natalie Portman, Gilad Kahana, Amir Tessler
Written by: Natalie Portman, based on a memoir by Amos Oz
Directed by: Natalie Portman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic content and some disturbing violent images
Language: Hebrew with English subtitles
Running Time: 95
Date: 08/26/2016
IMDB

A Tale of Love and Darkness (2016)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Jerusalem Thought

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Natalie Portman has had an exemplary career. She's strikingly beautiful, but extremely smart and has been taken seriously as an actress (with an Oscar win for Black Swan and another nomination for Closer). She has been in blockbusters and in serious films, as well as the occasional comedy. She's so admired and respected that she even survived the Star Wars prequels unscathed. Now she has made her directorial debut, and while the early buzz was not favorable, A Tale of Love and Darkness strikes me as some of her finest work.

Adapted from a novel by Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness takes place in Jerusalem in the 1940s, before and during the time it achieved statehood. Portman plays Fania, whose husband, Arieh (Gilad Kahana), is a bespectacled scholar. She often tells her son Amos (Amir Tessler) vivid stories that have interesting lessons, such as: it's better to be sensitive than to be honest.

As with any memoir or coming-of-age story, the film is told in incidents, such as when Amos, expected to be at his best behavior at a grownup party, accidentally causes a young girl to be injured. Or, during the growing pains of statehood, Amos runs through the countryside, picking up bottles. But Fania provides a throughline for everything with her stories, which grow more and more infrequent as her health deteriorates. She has her own visions and flashbacks, which suggest an inner, poetic life that might have thrived in some other time or place. But it's clear that she loves Amos and tries her best to impart something of herself in him.

Portman herself was born in Jerusalem and uses a cast and crew largely from there. The film is presented in Hebrew with English subtitles, and there are certainly things that are going to be lost on Western audiences used to seeing Portman in Thor movies. There's a certain idea of masculinity that is just out of grasp; in an epilogue, Amos grows up to be a farmer, bronzed by the sun and working with his hands, but still somehow feeling like a pale, bullied schoolboy. However, I think Portman does a fine job of balancing everything through the three characters and their interactions. Additionally, Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak captures a beautiful sense of place, marrying the characters perfectly to their surroundings.

Overall, I found A Tale of Love and Darkness to be a sincere, heartfelt movie, and it reminded me vividly of certain movies from a certain time, specifically things like My Life as a Dog, Radio Days, Hope and Glory, Empire of the Sun, Au Revoir Les Enfants, and Avalon. It seems like that kind of gentle filmmaking is gone these days, replaced by a certain way of self-promoting and self-congratulating. Portman is a professional, and in her years of making films, I think she has come to understand that a story is something to be offered and gratefully accepted, without necessarily expecting something in return. Portman has offered us a story that is worth experiencing.

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