We’d sort of waffled on seeing Natalie Portman’s new movie—written, directed and starring Princess Padmé! though somehow this is not used as a selling point—because it didn’t have the boffo reviews, but I tried to sway The Boy on the basis that movies that portray Israel in any sort of positive light are necessarily going to be voted down regardless of merit. I didn’t actually succeed in convincing him, but we ended up watching this because of various timing issues, i.e., we were at the movies and this was playing.
This is a fine, fine film, despite the tepid 60s given on Rotten Tomatoes (by the small number of critics and reviewers), and those 60s are up from the initial scores which were 40s and 50s, if I recall. So I do believe the anti-Jew thesis holds up. Which would be funny, perhaps, if the pro-Israel statement here wasn’t both mild and factual, i.e., the Jews came to reclaim their homeland in the Middle East because Europe wasn’t safe for them any more. So, while A Tale of Love and Darkness hardly paints the new Israeli government as saints, neither does she throw her Founding Fathers under the bus (as we like to in America).
Primarily, though, this movie has little to do with Israel. It’s a touching reminiscence, based on a memoir by Amos Oz, of an early childhood with a mother who is depressed. This happens to be in Israel right around the time of the War for Independence, and the story incorporates that aspect into the emotional state of the mother, about which I’ll get to in a moment.
First, let me say, this is a very difficult thing to do well: The problem with mental illness is that it doesn’t really conform to narrative. We want, as moviegoers, to see a story that makes sense. And certainly there are stories about sadness and other emotional problems where the problem can be clearly pinpointed and resolved in a satisfying way. But if the term “mental illness” is to have any meaning (and perhaps it doesn’t), it must be that the inappropriate behavior/emotional state doesn’t have its cause in a current situation. In other words, if your dog dies (as ours recently did, alas), it’s not “mental illness” to be sad. There’s probably something wrong with you if you aren’t at least little sad when your dog dies. It’s when the melancholy comes on for no (apparent) reason that it can be so classified.
Of course, from a narrative perspective, a problem that comes on for no apparent reason doesn’t lend itself to a satisfying narrative. Movies often just flat-out fail when they to tackle this stuff. Or, what will occasionally happen is that a narrative is built where the mental illness is orthogonal to another narrative, which can seem to trivialize the issue. Neither is a good moviegoing experience.
What Portman (and Oz, of course) do here is quite sensitive and touching: The main character of the story isn’t Fania (Portman) even if she dominates the screen; it’s little Amos (newcomer Amir Tessler). What we’re seeing is an old man trying to make sense out of what a young child saw, which is only bits and pieces of the whole story. For example, Fania’s mother (Dina Doron, I think) yells at her in the kitchen, complaining that they should’ve let her die in the camps (possibly instead of some other more valued family members). It’s the sort of memory you’d have as a child, someone wishing your mother was dead, but there’s not really more about it. In fact, you’d remember all sorts of hostile things about your mother, without the appropriate context.
This works surprisingly well. Because what we see is, even at this late date, Amos Oz loves his mother. He frames her depression in terms of disappointment: She had so many visions of life as a child, including one of Israel as the promised land, and all the wishes came true but without the beauty she imagined would go with them.
The Boy and I found it quite moving, really. Subtly, tastefully done, and successful at making Fania appealing when she might’ve (in those troubled times) just been viewed as a flighty, crazy whiner.
I should comment on the technical aspects of the direction, given that this is Mrs. Portman’s debut: It’s good.
Okay, more detail: There’s some nice blocking and tracking here. At first, it felt a little overeager, like she had a lot of tools in her toolkit and she was going to use them all come hell-or-high-water. But it calms down pretty fast and some of the bolder choices work very well, as a scene where the dizzy Fania is shot blurred for a moment before coming in to focus. You probably won’t notice, because overall it feels fairly confident, like she knew what she wanted and she knew how to get it (or who to ask about how to get it). I would not be sad to see her pursue this line of work.
It’s also nice to see her act. I presume an actress can only stand around pointlessly in so many Star Wars and Thor flicks until it gets old. This performance here is better than her Oscar-winning Black Swan performance which, truth be told, is probably a little one-dimensional (even if she did do it well). I felt more like Fania this was a real person, a complicated person.
So, ignore the haters and check it out.