For her directorial debut, Natalie Portman has taken on what may be the magnum opus of Israel’s greatest author – Amos Oz’s 2002 memoir “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” Still, the 1939-born novelist has been nothing but magnanimous in the process, the actress told Haaretz.
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Portman, who plays Oz’s mother in the film she wrote, says Oz “and his whole family were incredibly generous with me. He always encouraged me to make my own piece, because the book already exists, and he didn’t want me to simply film the book . He took us on a tour of his neighborhood when we were location-scouting and also recommended areas that could look like the neighborhood as it was in the ‘40s.”
Although Oz consulted on the screenplay, Portman notes that “his feedback to my script adaptation was more of a factual nature than a creative one . He really allowed me a great freedom with the film, which was very moving to me.”
In her adaptation, which is set for release in the United States on Friday, Portman brings to visual life Oz’s memories of himself as a young boy in Jerusalem on the eve of Israel’s founding.
The kaleidoscope of Oz’s and Israel’s early years resonates deeply with Portman, who says she immediately felt a familiar connection. As she describes it, “I was drawn to the material because Amos’ writing is so poetic and evocative, because the relationship between Amos and his mother is incredibly moving, and because the period of history has featured heavily in my imagination because of its similarity to the stories I heard growing up from my family.”
In the first half of his book, Oz recreates the world of Eastern European immigrants in 1940s Kerem Avraham, a Jerusalem neighborhood. The place teemed with the overeducated but poor, the idealistic but frustrated.
They made their way though grubby narrow streets that seemed a million miles from the high culture of Vilna, Odessa and Prague. The mere mention of those cities seemed to denote an idealized world forever out of reach and forever better.
The center of young Oz’s universe lay in a small apartment bursting with books, with a pedantic father who liked to quote right-winger Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and a sensitive, reflective mother who longed for the promises of the world she had to flee and felt shortchanged by her new one.
Orbiting young Amos and his parents – Fania and Arieh – were relatives, neighbors, the long shadows of family left behind, and Israeli greats like Menachem Begin, David Ben-Gurion and novelist S.Y. Agnon. There were also the historic events that turned British Palestine into a Jewish state.
In an email exchange with writer Jonathan Safran Foer recently published by The New York Times, Portman writes, “In many ways, adapting Oz’s memoir was an obvious choice for my first film. The story of Oz’s family at the dawn of the state of Israel is remarkably close to all the stories I heard growing up about my father’s family: the worship of everything European, refugees confronted by the desert, the atmosphere of constant violence, the political debates, the obsession with books and storytelling and language, womanhood in a religious/military/socialist amalgam, the dark fantasy of building a utopian community when all the parents have been killed, the mythology of the pioneer and the new Israeli man.”
Oz’s meandering prose and thematic fluidity seem to resist any overarching narrative. To transform the book into a film, Portman had to find a way to anchor Oz’s ode to memory and meaning. She chose to do so by framing it around the relationship between Fania and young Amos.
“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,” Portman told Haaretz.
In his reconstruction of the past, Oz seems to project onto young Amos and Fania an almost supernatural prescience. How else could a young boy learn to live with his mother’s choice to abandon life and thereby him? Portman’s film employs this projection onto the past to great effect.
“As for the point of view, it is all essentially from mature Amos’ point of view,” Portman says. “When we see the world through young Amos’ eyes, it is how the older Amos remembers it. And when we see Fania’s interior life, it is how mature Amos imagines her to be feeling.”