ReelBob: ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’

By Bob Bloom

Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” is a melancholy memory piece, based on the book by Amos Oz.

The film, set in Jerusalem prior to and after the creation of the state of Israel, is uneven. It is basically a series of vignettes told from the point of view of an elderly Amos, looking back on his childhood and his relationship with his mother.

Portman has created quite a challenge for herself for her first foray behind the camera. The movie feels incomplete, a feature told in fragments.

Probably, because that is how memory usually works, Portman, who also wrote the screenplay, tries to duplicate that experience.

But it seems just a bit out of her reach, as if her grasp was not yet strong enough to hold her cinematic vision.

The focal point of the movie is Fania, played by Portman, Amos’ mother. She is an imaginative dreamer who enjoys telling stories to her son.

However, the harsh life in Jerusalem, where they scrape by in a cramped apartment, wears down her spirit. Fania is a woman who loves the outdoors, and the enclosed environment of the backstreets of the city hobbles her spirit.

Her only consolation is her son, whom she calls “her light” in what she perceives as a world of darkness.

She feels intellectually stifled and unhappy in her marriage to Arieh, an academic and writer.

Even Israeli independence cannot raise Fania’s outlook, as it fails to inaugurate the optimistic and bright future she envisioned.

Portman takes the film’s title literally, offering some dreamlike imagery in the stories Fania tells Amos. But it also is filled with many dim and dreary sequences, as Portman uses a dark palette that seems to suck the life out of Fania.

The emotional core of the movie is young Amir Tessler as Amos. He is a quiet, thoughtful and observant boy, who cannot totally comprehend what is going on around home.

He knows something is not quite right with the mother he so adores, but cannot bring himself to confront either parent about the situation.

Instead, he does what he can to make his mother happy.

“A Tale of Love and Darkness” is a fine, solid effort by Portman. It was tough material to adapt because of its subject matter.

And while Portman did not totally succeed, the film shows she has a knack that will carry her far if she decides to go behind the camera again — which I hope she does.

Despite the movie’s flaws, Portman’s sincerity and her and Tessler’s performances will remain with you after the credits roll.

Bob Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob ( and Rottentomatoes ( He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom.

3 stars out of 4
(PG-13), mature themes, violent and disturbing images

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