September 10, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Review: “A Tale of Love and Darkness”


Natalie Portman certainly hasn’t made it easy for herself with her debut as a writer/director, A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS.  The film, which premiered at Cannes (but tellingly, doesn’t yet have a US distributor) before its first North American screening at the Toronto Film Festival tonight, is a period piece shot almost entirely in subtitled Hebrew, with a central role for Portman that puts her through the wringer as an actress as well.

Tale is based on an autobiographical work by the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, and it concerns his childhood in Jerusalem just before and after the establishment of Israel as a nation.  Portman isn’t particularly interested in the politics, however, or even very much in the history, other than in a glancing way.  Her script focuses on Oz’s troubled mother Fania (Portman). who had been raised comfortably in what was then Poland, only to have her life ripped apart by World War II.  In Israel, she lived with her unsuccessful writer husband (Gilad Kahana), with Amos (Amir Tessler) as their only child.

Although Portman (who was herself born in Israel) clearly feels a strong affinity for the material, she’s chosen an impressionistic style that explains very little about what was actually going on with Fania and her family.  We’re told in narration (of which there is too much) by an elderly man meant to represent the adult Oz that Fania had lost everyone she loved during the war, but her parents and sisters survived and live nearby in Tel Aviv.  Her problems with her husband, apart from general dissatisfaction, are never made clear.  She may suffer from clinical depression, but that, too, is left vague.

The resulting film is more admirable than moving.  Portman and her master cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (a veteran of everything from Kieslowski’s masterpieces to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) have composed starkly lovely images that are drained of color to such an extent that they’re often essentially black and white.  It’s a distinctive look, and perhaps it’s meant to indicate the empty way Fania perceives the world, but along with the almost uninterrupted note of misery, it makes for 97 minutes that are a chore to sit through.  The one time Tale moves out of its selected zone, and the place where Portman shows the most promise as a cinematic storyteller, is a sequence that has nothing to do with Fania, where family friends take Amos to a party thrown by an affluent local Arab.  What follows is alternately funny, romantic and terribly sad, in a way that suggests a less insistent and perhaps more effective version of this story.

Portman digs deep as an actress to play Fania, capturing early scenes of emotional kinship with her son and the later remoteness.  What she doesn’t do is give viewers a way into her character, and the same goes for Amos and his father, who are never developed beyond the obvious.

It’s no surprise that Portman’s work as a filmmaker is intelligent and skillful, but she appears to have fallen into the trap that’s caught many a passion project:  her own passion hasn’t translated to the audience.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."