Actors gravitate toward passion projects, films they care deeply, even obsessively about, but the end result is hardly ever 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 strong 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 has been eager to tell for eight years, but one she never planned to star in. "Initially, I wanted to use an Israeli actress, but no one would give me the money as a first-time director for such a completely noncommercial project," she said in an interview when the film debuted at Cannes. "And I was also starting to get old enough to play the part myself."
Portman, an Oscar-winner for "Black Swan," was also old enough to know who to surround herself with, and this film is effective because, starting with her Israeli costars, the people she's elected to work with are all impressive.
Veteran cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, responsible for the film's appropriate desaturated look, has shot everything from "Black Hawk Down" to "The Double Life of Veronique," while editor and frequent Sidney Lumet collaborator Andrew Mondshein, production designer Arad Sawat ("Footnote") and composer Nicholas Britell ("12 Years a Slave") all have credits just as notable.
But finally, 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, very 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, we are told in the film's opening minutes, who took her life at age 38, when the author was but 12 years old. 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, with the pain of fighting against the pull of the vortex constantly on her face.
As a screenwriter, Portman has condensed Oz's 500-plus-page book into a tight 98 minutes, concentrating on key sequences and episodes, starting with a scene of the 10-year-old Amos doing what he loved best, making up stories with his mother, who employed fables about her past in Europe to obliquely explain the world to her son.
Fania came to Jerusalem from Rovno, in Ukraine, where she dreamed of a Palestine where handsome pioneers made the desert bloom. Instead, after her family left, 23,000 Jews, including everyone she knew, were killed by the Germans in two days.
Amos is always trying to understand a mother whose essence is fated to be forever out of reach. Beautifully played by Amir Tessler, Amos is a born observer, a very serious young person always listening in as his mother trades stories of romance and tragedy with her sisters.
Amos' love of words also came from his earnest, careful father, a scholar and sometime author as well as something of a philologist who delights in, for instance, pointing out the connections between the Hebrew words for earth, man, blood and silence.
"Love and Darkness" begins in 1945, in British Mandate Palestine, where even making a phone call to nearby Tel Aviv is shown to be a major production. It's a time when Jerusalem's Arabs represented a more cultured world and the Jewish settlers worked hard to help everyone get along.
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 which 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.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic content and some disturbing violent images.
In Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
Playing Landmark, West Los Angeles.
"A Tale of Love and Darkness." Based on the Amos Oz memoir and directed by and starring Natalie Portman, this Hebrew language film persuasively intertwines the personal tale of a young boy's strong bond with his emotionally fragile mother with the wider narrative of the early days of the state of Israel. - Kenneth Turan