TIFF 2016 Movie Review: A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS (Israel/US 2015) Directed by Natalie Portman

Movie Reviews of films that will be playing at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) in 2016. Go to TIFF 2016 Movie Reviews and read reviews of films showing at the festival.

a_tale_of_love_and_darkness.jpgA TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS (Israel/US 2015) ***
Directed by Natalie Portman

Starring: Natalie Portman, Shira Haas, Amir Tessler

Review by Gilbert Seah

A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS was screened at last year’s TIFF after premiering at Cannes. When a film that marks a directorial debut by an actor is screened at TIFF, the normal reaction is to avoid. But this film by actress Natalie Portman (Oscar Winner for BLACK SWAN) is truly a labour of love. Whether successful or not, it is one that has Portman’s heart and soul put into its making. This should be reason alone to view the film.

Portman reported took 8 years to write the script after obtaining the rights to the book – an autobiography by Amos Oz. She also not only learned Hebrew but to speak it without an American accent. Portman herself was born in Israel. The film is shot in Hebrew.

The book and Portman’s film are told from the point of view of Amos Oz, the son of the mother Portman portrays, as he grows from adolescence to youth. The film tells the story of his youth, set against the backdrop of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine and the early years of the State of Israel. A major influence of Amos’ upbringing is his mother. But in certain scenes, like the one where the mother imagines her bookish husband as a handsome labourer,the film uncomfortably shifts the point of view from the boy to her.

The boy, Amos is closer to the mother than to the father, as observed by the film. The mother is seen to be the more realistic person than her academic husband. Portman paints him as an ugly creature with bucked teeth and spectacles. But she shows the boy, at various points in the film smiling whenever his parents share a loving moment.

Her film is meticulously crafted, perhaps too much so. Her film is beautiful to look at, with a dizzy hazy look but it lacks drama and life. Even the dramatic scene like the swing accident is shot with the confrontation taken away. Portman never makes it clear he purpose of this segment. The audience is expected to figure out this one and many other such segments (like the kicking of the football) on their own.
When a story is told of two monks traveling through India, these scene is materialized with the son and mother in monks’ robes walking through a field of flowers. When the boy smiles while lying on the ground looking at his parents, the image is shown upside down, from the boy’s angle. Portman appears to concentrate more on the film’s look than the way the book’s message is put across to the audience.

Portman’s film though set in the Israel/Palestinian conflict is violence free. The violence is only heard as news on the radio or from conversations that take place. Her film is also a very serious piece, almost devoid of humour. Se does inject the occasional nostalgia as in the rendering of the Charles Trenet Frenc song, “La Mer”.

It is difficult to figure to see the reason for Portman’s obsession for filming Oz’s novel, or why the novel is such a bestseller. Oz’s writing skill is assumed to be inherited from his father. One scene shows Amos’ story telling skills used to prevent himself being beaten up by bullies. But nothing is said on how his writing skills developed except for the stories his mother tells.

The result is a beautifully looking but rather lifeless film.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_bC0o9l2vs

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