I knew nothing about Amos Oz’s life or work before seeing “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” an adaptation of his autobiography that also serves as Natalie Portman’s directorial debut. In the absence of that knowledge, I was able to see the mechanics of a standard biopic as they grind out familiar beats. It was not a pretty sight.
The film centers around Oz’s childhood, far before he became the man Wikipedia claims is regarded as Israel’s greatest living writer. His father Arieh (Gilad Kahana) is an etymology wonk, constantly pointing out connections in disparate Hebrew words. His mother Fania (Portman), on the other hand, is an amateur bedtime parable teller. Most of the stories are shaded by pessimism from her own experiences escaping the decimation of Europe in the anti-Semitic early decades of the 20th century.
The protagonist of the story is quite clearly Oz – it’s an older version of himself that provides the framing device for the film, and he whose experiences form the majority of the action depicted on screen. Yet Fania’s struggles pull a considerable amount of attention away from his development, particularly in the back stretch of the film when she becomes struck by a mysterious illness. While Portman auditions for a Sylvia Plath character, Oz becomes a passive figure in his own life. And without his agency, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” can provide scant justification for why to tell his story in the first place. C /