TIFF40 2015 Film Review: A Tale of Love and Darkness

“It’s better to be sensitive than to be honest”. 

It is no surprise that first time writer/director Natalie Portman is taking a Pro-Jewish stance in her newest film A Tale of Love and Darkness. A celebrated novel by one of, if not the most prolific novelists hailing from Israel, Amos Oz; a last name that literally translates to “hope” in Hebrew. Oz is a novelist whose book serves as a large and hopeful story towards conflict flooding the Middle East. Sadly for Portman, whose keen eye and collaboration with many talented directors, has allowed her to visually over-stylize her film with beauty and tones of dark and tragically elegant glimpses, without much of a handle on narrative and storytelling. 

A Tale of Love and Darkness is more dark than it is loving; seemingly with all but mere glimmers of hope for its small group of main characters. As the film begins, we are aware that an older Oz is telling a story, his story more specifically, essentially providing a voiceover for his novel. Narrating his words and recounting his childhood years after the Second World War, during a time Israel is under British mandate, a young Oz navigates a barren and soulless country while the politics and ramifications of war break down all around him. His only salvation are his zestful mother and realistic father. His mother Fania (Portman) and father Arieh (Gilad Kahana) are not wealthy. Ariel is an aspiring writer and librarian, Fania, a dedicated housewife who we understand leaves a life of wealth for love and motherhood, is a dreamer. Although she always imagined marrying a rebel/poet/farmer, Fania’s expectations are always challenged against her realities.

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The illusions and aphorisms within Fania’s head are all stories of dread, drearily setting the tone for the mentality of many people during this time. It is when Fania begins her monologues about these parables that Portman’s direction was at its strongest. Perhaps highly lit and stylized to their full potential, these stories provided audiences with a very real and optimistic promise of resolution and sometimes painful acceptance of war and conflict, yet so elegantly presented. Luckily, these stories account for a hefty portion of the film and drive the not-so-long runtime through smoothly.

There is no surprise that throughout the course of Portman’s adaptation of Darkness, Oz is fully in love with his mother and her relentless attitude. Portman’s cinematic take on the novel sadly disconnects her audience from the deep relationship between a young Oz and his living and loving mother Fania. Plagued with sleepy fade outs, incoherent scenes developing a young Oz and a highly depressed Fania, mixed with a blend of illustrious illusions and parables, pushed with a dash of Arieh’s involvement with the family, Darkness is a dimly lit tragedy filled with hardly any love and mostly resent. Much like her character Fania, the light that so easily gleamed from her eyes and into the lives of other characters surrounding her, Fania’s light slowly fades, bulldozing her character into a state of depression.

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Portman is a dynamic actress with a very strong political voice when it comes to many of the conflicts happening in the Middle East today. As a recent Oscar winner and Harvard graduate with an articulate and respectable celebrity presence, it is difficult to imagine many critics and film reviewers giving scathing reviews for a piece of work that isn’t all that good. Portman’s efforts behind and in front of the camera are very admirable; her promise as a director is highly confident and most of all, her content is riveting, just not in this film.

Darkness is a film that toys with the failed promises of youth, speaks in a cocky and overstuffed tone of ethereal Hebrew that fails to connect its audience to the words and highly complex fantasies running through Oz’s and Fania’s head. Poetic, tragic, benign with its potential perspective to show a very unbiased side of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Portman’s feature directorial and writing debut is a tale of much promise.

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Portman may have tried to show the most innocent and bare examples of the conflict through scenes between children; one involving a dangerous swing, another involving children in a school playground. As such it is no surprise that the new director succeeds at very basic and simple action/reaction scenes. Sadly however, while Darkness comes to a conclusion, Oz’s redemption from childhood to youth is never really seen or appreciated. Instead, audiences are left with a handsome and enlightened youth whose promise as an affective and politically conscious presence is spoiled in the beginning scenes of an older and wiser voiceover character. Editing is surely not one of Darkness’ strong suits.

Portman is keen on showing that violence and conflict have no age limits or boundaries; it is unwavering and unkind to gender and race. Wholeheartedly, A Tale of Love and Darkness attempts to show us the light. The unfortunate reality, however, is that the lights always seem to be turned off.

Night Film Reviews: 6 Stars out of 10.

Feeling the love or succumbing to the darkness? Is Portman’s first feature behind the lens a triumph, or does it fall flat? Leave your comments below. 

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