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From left: Kahana, Tessler and Portman in A Tale of Love and Darkness. The movie is based on Jewish writer Amos Oz's melancholic memoir.
Portman pays tribute to her roots in this serious, deeply personal passion project.

A geopolitical snapshot of a tense time in history

Oct 14, 2016 5:50 AM

SHE made a memorable big screen entrance as a 12-year-old apprentice to a hitman (Leon the Professional, 1994), gained a large chunk of Hollywood fame as Queen Padmé Amidala in a Star Wars trilogy and cemented her acting credentials by winning an Academy Award as a tortured ballerina in Black Swan (2010).

For her directorial debut, Natalie Portman picked a project that may be surprising to some, but is close to her heart. By adapting A Tale of Love and Darkness, Jewish writer Amos Oz's melancholic memoir about family life and growing up in what would become the state of Israel, Portman is also giving a personal nod to her own background: she was born in Israel, migrated to the US when she was three and maintains strong ties to her home country.

Seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy, A Tale of Love and Darkness, filmed entirely in Hebrew, is a geopolitical snapshot of a time where tensions were on the rise between Jews and Arabs in British-administered Palestine.

That trouble would eventually boil over into the armed conflict and political unrest that continue to the present day although the film - in keeping with the author's preference for a two-state solution - adopts a more conciliatory tone.

The story begins in 1945, when Jerusalem was under British Mandate. Even as they walk the city streets during the course of their daily routines, Amos (Amir Tessler) and his parents Fania (Portman) and Arieh (Gilad Kahana) can sense the mutual distrust among the various factions.

Fania dotes on her son and bombards him at bedtime with tales that are romantic interpretations of her own childhood in Poland, worlds away from the turbulent times they are experiencing now. Her semi-desperate behaviour also reflects a lonely, passionless marriage, a hostile mother-in-law and the fact that those closest to her - her sisters - are living in a different city.

Amos is an only child but at times his parents "loan" him out to a childless couple, as a compassionate gesture. During a visit to a neighbour's home he meets a Palestinian girl who makes a positive impression, but their budding friendship is ruined by an unfortunate incident involving the girl's younger brother - a less-than-subtle metaphor for larger issues afflicting the community.

In November 1947, Amos and his parents witnessed the official United Nations resolution announcing the creation of the Jewish state - but the Palestinians are less fortunate, and civil war breaks out. Fania's romantic notion of suffering is crushed after a close friend is killed and an overwhelming sadness envelops her entire being. She sinks into an emotional abyss that seems impossible to emerge from.

A Tale of Love and Darkness is far removed from Portman's own experience as a Hollywood A-lister, or so it would seem - audience perception and reality are rarely the same thing, of course. There is a beautiful melancholy to this serious, deeply personal passion project. It may be stilted in parts but it was also never intended to have mass appeal - Portman clearly wanted to pay tribute to her roots, and that's a sentiment that anyone can understand.

Rating: C+