The best thing one can say about Natalie Portman‘s directorial debut, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” is that it’s not an outright disaster.
But sadly it feels like a vanity piece, showcasing the actress as a self-martyring Jewish mother, raising her supremely-cultured, refugee family on the cusp of Israel becoming a state in 1947.
Of course it’s not every day that a movie star – and a female one at that – puts herself on the line by writing and directing a serious film. That’s to be celebrated. And watching Portman act in fluent Hebrew is a bit of a delightful shock, like seeing someone you’ve known a long time suddenly demonstrate that they can juggle knives or walk a tightrope.
But as for directing — well, that’s another question. “A Tale of Love and Darkness” starts as a narrative of the birth of Israel, told sympathetically via a young Jewish family that has just escaped the Holocaust in Europe. Then it veers into a slow-moving tale of a woman’s descent into depression, told from the perspective of her son (based on the novel by Israeli writer Amos Oz).
In a world populated by virtuoso directors, including Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Portman’s own “Black Swan”-making Darren Aronofsky or others at this festival like Matteo Garrone (here with the hallucinogenic “Tale of Tales”), Portman’s effort feels self-indulgent.
As the mother Fania, she gets an inordinate amount of screen time lavishing Jewish motherly love on her young son (who isn’t that young, truth be told, to still be getting bathed by Mama), making borscht and telling long, allegorical yarns.
And the film will no doubt be criticized for its unvarnished sympathy toward the Jewish point of view in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was worthy of more nuance even in a story with Jewish protagonists. There’s not an unsympathetic Jew in the entire tale – everyone is always reading a book, or writing one – and indeed no villain in the story at all, not even an Arab one. In one scene, the young boy Amos meets a young Arab girl at a social gathering of an Arab family where Jews have been invited. Amos greets her in Arabic, the Arab girl speaks fluent Hebrew, and they talk of their desires to become poets and writers. Talk about wish-fulfillment.
In all, the film seems to embrace Jewish stereotypes without a hint of irony. The simplicity of the story might have carried the day, but instead there is little penetration of the human condition to which viewers can connect, despite the diversion of Portman’s always-astonishing physical beauty.