A Tale of Love and Darkness, the memoir by Amos Oz closely intertwines personal trauma of and history, in this case the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. In the memoir, the novelist deftly shifts between background and foreground with such skill that it’s hard to tell which is which. All mixed up together are the personal and the political, inside and outside, the Holocaust and its first mental aftershocks, the establishment of the state, the struggle of the author’s mother with mental illness and suicide, the professional and personal failures of his father, who never quite makes it as an academic. Oz is the young boy caught in the middle and trying to make sense of his place in it all, in contrast to which the movie is a vanity project, which is all about Natalie Portman, who directs the film and stars as the novelist’s mother.
Focused on dreams, beauty, reality and trauma, A Tale of Love and Darkness is another Black Swan. Regarding her decision to focus this film on Fania, Portman told Ha’aretz, which you can read here, “I chose to focus the film on the relationship between Amos and his mother … because I felt that was the central, and incredibly moving, narrative of the book.” The choice demands that the camera never leaves her haunted and haunting face except for only the briefest of moments. The director would have done well to show less of herself. Completely unlike the memoir, the movie turns suffering and death into beauty, the memory and reality of historical violence into kitsch.
This then is the state of Jewish culture today, pseudo-profound musings on the meaning of Jewish existence, full of plodding bathos, sexy and self-involved. The film ends up looking very much like a companion piece to the email exchange between the director and the American Jewish novelist Jonathan Safran-Foer which was published along with tastefully naughty pictures of the actress in in the Sunday Style section of the New York Times, around the time of the movie’s release. This is what the new American Jewish culture is going to look like. It is no coincidence at all that Tablet Magazine has crowned Portman “The Queen Esther of Our Times.”
On to something, Uri Klein at Haaretz (How Natalie Portman Ruined an Amos Oz Novel”) notes that the film is an Israeli-American co-production supported by funds, foundations and government agencies. One of these funds turns out to be the Avi Chai foundation, funded by Mem Bernstein, who has funded other conservative leaning Jewish cultural platforms, including Tablet Magazine. Klein writes, “But yes, the film is a flop. Perhaps due to Portman’s prestige, the Israeli institutions supporting the production hoped she knew what she was doing. They probably thought the result would splash some prestige on all of Israeli cinema.”
That would have been a mistake. Israeli cinema certainly can stand on its own artistic and critical excellence without this buy-in from American Jewish donors and the intellectuals and artists they promote. For whom this film was made? Who went to see it? A Tale of Love and Darkness was shown only briefly at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, the uptown venue where films like these get shown in New York, and where I was expecting I’d go to view it. The film got moved pretty quickly downtown where I saw it at the Sunshine Cinema.