“You have to be Jewish to understand it,” said my seatmate, in tears, at the end of the premiere of Natalie Portman’s quietly devastating new film, A Tale of Love and Darkness.
It helps, too, to be Israeli-American and speak Hebrew, like Portman, to bring Amos Oz’s international bestseller to the screen in her feature directorial debut—in Hebrew no less. The Harvard-educated, Oscar-winning Portman, born Neta-Lee Hershlag in Jerusalem, stars in the adaptation of Oz’s memoir about a boy coming of age in the tumultuous period just before and after Israel’s independence from the British mandate.
Portman also wrote the screenplay, which borrows from another of Oz’s books, How to Cure a Fanatic, in suggesting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is rooted in irony because both groups had the same oppressor. Europe exploited, humiliated, colonized and controlled the Arab world and it murdered the Jews, Oz wrote.
“[But] two children of the same cruel parent do not love one another,” the narrator, meant to be 76-year-old Oz, says in the film. “Very often they see in each other the exact image of the cruel parent.”
A Tale of Love and Darkness is not the first Israel-themed movie made by an avowed Zionist to show sympathy for the plight of Palestinian Arabs and the complexity of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But because of Portman’s star power, it’s the perfect film for the postmodern American Jew (see also: Jon Stewart and Tony Kushner, among others) who, in part due to the controversial policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has spoken out against the Israeli government in recent years in ways that would have been unthinkable before.
“I’m very much against Netanyahu,” Portman, who moved to the U.S. when she was 3, told The Hollywood Reporter last week. “I am very, very upset and disappointed that he was elected. I find his racist comments horrific.”
Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List first brought the horrors of the Holocaust home to American audiences in 1993. When he released Munich in 2005, it was controversial for portraying Israelis as avenging warriors—not tragic victims—in the story of the Israeli government’s secret retaliation against the Palestine Liberation Operation after the massacre at the 1972 Olympics.
A Tale of Love and Darkness adds to the ongoing shift in how Israel is being perceived in Hollywood. It could be the first film to make the complex and bittersweet story of its creation real to American audiences, although it is probably too dreary to ever be a hit.
Portman plays Oz’s melancholy mother Fania, a refugee from the Ukrainian village of Rovno, which has also been considered part of Poland, Lithuania, and the Soviet Union over the years.
Sturdy and vivacious at the start of the film, which begins just after the end of World War II, Fania slowly falls apart after the Jews in Israel get what they want: the 1947 U.N. resolution that leads to Israeli statehood.
The reason for Fania’s depression, which manifests first as severe migraines, is confusing and mysterious as seen through the eyes of her young son (the excellent Amir Tessler), but there’s another possibility evident to the audience: For some cultured, intellectual Eastern European Jews like Amos’s mother, uprooted from their homes and set down in dusty, dreary lower-middle-class Jerusalem, the desert was never going to bloom. The long-dreamed-of homeland would never be enough because of what they’d lost—and for the “abyss” Fania intuits is awaiting the new state of Israel and the Jews.
Many scenes follow in which the once-regal, now morose Fania is seen sitting in a chair staring blankly into space, curled up on her side in bed, popping white pills, and roaming aimlessly around in the rain. She’s so checked out that she lets her nebbishy, earnest husband (Gilad Kahana), a librarian and writer, know that he can see other women. She commits suicide when Amos is 12.
What saves the film from becoming the Jewish Bell Jar are the nuanced glimpses into the almost-civilized relationships between Arabs and Jews under British rule, and how the establishment of Israel set in motion what would be decades of misery for Palestinian Arabs.
Portman made it clear in her recent interview that she doesn’t want to be seen as anti-Israel just because she opposes Netanyahu.
“I feel like there’s some people who become prominent, and then it’s out in the foreign press. You know, shit on Israel,” Portman said. “I do not. I don’t want to do that.”
She doesn’t “do that” in the film. Even though Arabs are portrayed as the clear aggressors later in the movie, it’s balanced enough to show both points of view.
In one of the movie's most chillingly prescient scenes, little Amos is taken for tea at the home of a well-to-do Arab family and is admonished to be on his very best behavior. But after being told to go play in the yard, he becomes enamored of a little Arab girl close to him in age named Aicha. To impress her, he climbs a tree and accidentally dislodges a hanging swing, hitting and injuring her little brother down below and horrifying both families. But the damage is done.
The sense of haunting loss, on both sides, is what makes A Tale of Love and Darkness hard to watch and difficult to forget.
“Still moved by Natalie’s film,” my friend texted me the following day. “So depressing. The devastation of the Jewish family 75 years ago is as vivid and agonizing as if it happened yesterday.”