Based on an autobiographical novel by Israeli author Amos Oz, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” tells a pivotal part of the history of Jerusalem—from World War II to the founding of Israel. Focusing on the vicissitudes of an ordinary family, it showcases surprisingly mature storytelling from first-time director Natalie Portman ’03, as well as her love for her hometown.
The movie starts in darkness, with the voice of a mother (Natalie Portman) talking to her son before he goes to bed. As she starts to make up a story with him, the audience sees a series of breathtaking surreal shots, from a huge flock of birds blocking the sky to a little boy deserted in an empty village. This scene sets up the style of the rest of the movie: elegant, moody, full of metaphors and fantasies. It seems obvious that Portman has put a lot of work into establishing and maintaining her style, and, as a new director, she is surprisingly sophisticated in carrying it out. The film is solemn, contemplative, and full of references to the rich and often painful history of the Jewish race.
The film shows how much its director loves Jerusalem, the city in which she grew up. As it follows protagonist through the streets of the ancient city, the film spends a lot of time gazing at the streets, the corners, and the people; in doing so, it traces back to the stories both personal to the main character and shared by all residents. Portman depicts the wartime hardship that Amos went through as a child, his mother’s love and sacrifice for the family, and the anxiety among people in the city with a nostalgic touch.
Admittedly, though, the film also has a large number of problems typical of directorial debuts. Most prominently, Portman seems too eager to convince the audience of her ability to direct—she tries to fill every shot with amazing cinematography, solemn emotions, and touching plot. Great films often need both moments that stand out and moments that set up the momentum. Portman, however, is so concerned with every single shot that sometimes the style of the movie seems like that of an commercial for an luxury brand. Portman also falters in trying to include all the characters and storylines mentioned in the book, regardless of their suitability for the medium of film. Some episodes, such as the affair of the father, are not connected to the rest of the film and should be completely cut out. When it comes to selecting the right materials for her film, Portman still seems often hesitant and unsure about herself.
All things considered, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” is a delicate film full of genuine emotions. Despite its problems—many of which that are to be expected in a debut—it is still an impressive piece worthy of applause.
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