PLOT A young boy is enchanted by the tales and poetry his mother shares with him as Israel moves toward statehood.
CAST Natalie Portman (who also wrote and directed), Makram Khoury, Shira Haas
RATED PG-13 (thematic content and some disturbing violent images)
PLAYING AT Malverne Cinema 4
BOTTOM LINE Portman’s directorial debut is a triumph. (In Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles)
Actors gravitate toward passion projects, films they care about deeply, even obsessively, but the result is seldom as convincing as “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” a film of beautiful melancholy written, directed by and starring Natalie Portman.
A Hebrew-language film based on the celebrated memoir by Israeli novelist Amos Oz, “Love and Darkness” persuasively intertwines the personal tale of a young boy’s bond with his emotionally fragile mother, strongly played by Portman, with the wider narrative of the early days of the future state of Israel.
It is a story Portman, who was born in Israel and raised in Syosset, has been eager to tell for eight years.
As writer, director and star, it is Portman’s own deep connection to the material, her integrity and respect that are key. Though “Love and Darkness” has moments of self-conscious artiness, as many first films do, Portman, sure as to what she wanted, has made certain not to overstate the story’s potent emotions, and that has made the difference.
This is especially true in her performance as Oz’s troubled mother, Fania, a woman who took her life at age 38, when the author was but 12. Acting in Hebrew in a performance that might be her best work, Portman makes Fania a genuinely haunted woman, someone who saw an abyss where others saw hope.
As a screenwriter, Portman has condensed Oz’s 500-plus-page book into a tight 95 minutes, concentrating on key sequences and episodes. A turning point both politically and personally is the Nov. 29, 1947, vote by the U.N. General Assembly that approved the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, a roll call that throngs of Jews, including Amos and his family, listened to in front of a public loudspeaker.
For most of the crowd, that vote was a hopeful moment, but for Fania the armed conflict it presaged would emphasize the way her girlhood fantasy clashed with cold reality. “A fulfilled dream is a disappointed dream,” the adult Oz says in voice-over, words that have as much relevance today as they did then.