Jewish History in Film: Unfulfilled dreams of the promised land in 'A Tale of Love and Darkness'
October 29, 2021
There have been several films surrounding the historical moment when Israel was established, most taking a nationalist stance, such as “Exodus” starring Paul Newman. As joyful of a moment as this was for many, even for the characters in the film we are about to look at, there was an underlying melancholy that crept its way into their subconscious. As bombs started to fall and wars were triggered, many realized that this was not the romantic dream that so many Jews had.
For Israeli born actress Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, she decided to retrace her steps into her family’s homeland through the memoir of one of the most prolific Israeli authors, Amos Oz.
Oz was one of the first notable Israelis to advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, eventually helping to found Peace Now, an advocacy group that garnered support from other well-known individuals including Leonard Nimoy (“Star Trek”) and Mandy Patinkin (“The Princess Bride”).
Oz had stated in the past that Israel was founded on dreams, each of the dreams different from one another. Many Jews immigrated to Israel with the idea of having a country reminiscent of their shtetls in Europe. Other Jews wanted to create a socialist paradise. Some wanted to create another, more secular, Europe. As with any dream, disappointment upon waking is inevitable. This idea is prevalent throughout “A Tale of Love and Darkness” and we see it infiltrate Portman’s character, Fania, to a tragic end.
The film is told through the perspective of an elderly Amos, the memory of his mother being both caring and restless. Born into a privileged household back in Europe, she fled to Israel to escape Nazi persecution. Now, she faces this less glamorous life filled with dust, books, and shared mattresses on the floor. She tells young Amos stories of her past, all coming to tragic conclusions. Surrounding this story is the backdrop of tensions arising between Arabs and Jews in British-mandated Palestine, a particularly compelling scene is when Amos is coached on how to behave on his way to an Arab family’s home. What plays out at the house is terrifying and the subtlety in which Portman approaches it makes it all the more compelling. Even the smallest upset poses grave consequences in the world established by this film.
As interesting as the political backdrop is of this film, it is quite evident the attention and care Portman brings to the familial story at its core. Fania’s mental health is neither dramatized nor does it seek to find any clear-cut definition to its origins. The ‘why’ behind what she is going through is as much of a mystery to the viewer as it was to the people around her. Portman stated that this was the number one reason Amos Oz passed on other adaptations; too many times did the filmmaker want to draw conclusions and create closure for the audience. In reality, when it comes to mental health, especially suicide, it is hard to simplify such complexity within a person.
The details in “A Tale of Love and Darkness” are what make this film worthwhile. The illustration of Fania’s dissatisfaction in her life is set up in one image early in the film. Fania watches as her husband, Arieh (a pitch-perfect performance from Gilad Kahana), hammers a steak into the ground with young Amos. Suddenly, her vision of a young, tan, athletic-built Israeli appears. The man hammers the steak with grace, the image of a man building her homeland from the ground up. But her reality comes crashing down as her overly literate husband, with round glasses and frail hands, works in a team with their son.
Fania’s dissatisfaction with her husband develops in young Amos, played by Amir Tessler, in a performance so unbelievably well done it is a borderline crime he was not acknowledged at award ceremonies. When one character predicts he will become a writer, he lashes out. “I won’t be a writer,” he says, “I’m not sensitive. I’m going to be a farmer or a dog poisoner with a syringe full of poison.” But it is more than evident the inevitable fate that young Amos Klaussner will have as he tells a story of Tarzan to stop a group of bullies from pummeling him. Even by the end of the story, when his father visits him on a kibbutz years later, his skin tan and his entire makeup similar to the Israeli man from his mother’s vision, he is still a writer underneath it all. “Though I forced myself to learn how to drive a tractor, lay irrigation hoses, hit the target with a Czech rifle, I still did not manage to transform myself. No one was taken in by my suntan. They all knew perfectly well, and I knew myself, that even when my skin was bronzed, I would still be pale on the inside.”
As far as directorial debuts are concerned, this one certainly stands out. Portman has long stood out as one of the greatest actresses working in Hollywood today, and I do not think it is a stretch to say we may see her prove herself as one of the finest storytellers working in Hollywood. Only time will tell.
With this film, she did not shy away from the social complexities of Israel’s beginnings, nor did she distract from the familial story at its core. She did not concern herself with massive set pieces but, instead, focused on the miniature details to build a bigger picture. The result is a somber film but, I would say, a hopeful one told through the eyes of a man who watched a country go from dream to reality, to a culture and a people all its own.
“A fulfilled dream is a disappointing dream. Disappointment is the nature of dreams.”
Zachary Aborizk is an independent filmmaker, writer, and teacher based out of Orlando, FL. His work has appeared in such publications as Adelaide Magazine in New York as well as the Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival.