How Natalie Portman Ruined an Amos Oz Book

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Natalie Portman at Cannes for her directorial debut, 'A Tale of Love and Darkness,' May 17, 2015. Credit: AP

Late last week, actress Natalie Portman’s first film as a director, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Sorry to say, I can’t find a single good thing to write about this dreary piece of moviemaking, which was screened out of competition.

Of course, a director can only bring to the screen part of Amos Oz’s multilayered and detailed autobiography, but it seems Portman, who also wrote the screenplay and appears in the starring role, took on too much of a burden. She was ill-equipped to meet the creative challenge.

Portman’s film is an empty shell that outwardly resembles an artistic work. It sketches the skeleton of Oz’s book without putting any intellectual or emotional meat on those bones.

In Portman’s version, everything is left out — from the relationship between young Amos’ parents, to young Amos’ handling of his plight and all the history going on around him. The plot begins in 1945 and continues beyond the founding of the state in 1948. Even the summary of Israel’s history that Portman inserts, apparently to help non-Israelis, is hackneyed and superficial.

But the main problems derive from Portman’s immaturity, even amateurishness, as a director. Not only does the film fail to offer any personal interpretation of the story, it lacks structure and pace. It creeps along with a weariness that smothers the emotional intensity at the heart of the tale — the suicide of Oz’s mother when he was only 12.

This powerful story called for carefully thought-out stylistic and emotional care, which is completely absent. In Portman’s film, the relationship between the son and mother, between the mother and father, and all the intellectual and emotional elements leading up to the mother’s death receive no interesting treatment. They are presented as mere plot points, so the result is hollow.

In the end, the film fails to arouse emotion or feeling for any of the characters, who are just as shallow and flimsy as the movie itself. It’s a chillingly aloof movie, but this chill has no deeper meaning.

One would expect Portman, an Oscar-winning actress, to know how to shape characters and instruct actors, but her film falls apart here too. Amir Tessler, who plays Amos as a boy, rarely changes his expression, and we have no idea what’s really happening to him before or after his mother’s death. (The movie notes that after his mother’s suicide, Oz moved to Kibbutz Hulda, but this stage is just as quick and superficial as everything else.)

Natalie Portman in 'A Tale of Love and Darkness,'. Photo by Ran Mendelson

Gilad Kahana is very wooden in the role of the fatheroverall, most of the  dialogue misses the mark. And Portman seems to need another director to guide her. Her performance is one long monotonous display of melancholy.

Portman’s film, an Israeli-American coproduction, was made with the support of a series of funds, foundations and government agencies.

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.

In the end, this isn’t the tale of a gifted actress who became a good director. You won’t find any deep expression of love in Portman’s film, or any existential darkness of any heft. Bluntly put, it’s not good cinema. It represents everything that makes a film just the opposite.

Sophisticated thinking

An Israeli movie shown in the special screenings slot was “Afterthought” (“Ha’yored L’ma’ala”), Elad Keidan’s first feature film. The director’s intelligence and talent are apparent, though the work still has some problems.

The minimalist plot is based on an architectural concept that exists in the Israeli landscape, so this won me over from the start. This strategy deploys creative and sophisticated thinking, and even if the film fails to fulfill its potential in this respect, the strategy makes for an intriguing work.

Apparently in Haifa, where Keidan’s film is set, you can climb steps all the way up from the Lower City to the top of Mount Carmel — and back down too of course. In the movie, which Keidan both wrote and directed, we follow two men, one (Uri Klauzner) going up the steps and one (Itay Tiran) going down.

But the plot isn’t nearly as schematic as this description might suggest, because for both men, the up and down sometimes get mixed up, as happens in life. After all, sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re on the way up or down, whether literally or figuratively.

The guy going up is looking for an earring his wife (Michaela Eshet in a tiny role) has lost — apparently on her way down the steps. It’s one of a pair the man bestowed his wife as an anniversary present, so its loss is meant to symbolize their marriage in crisis.

The guy going down the steps wants to reach the port, board a ship and leave the country — to flee a personal and professional crisis. He also wants to dodge reserve military service, for which he’s due to report that day.

The climbing up and down is interrupted by brief vignettes of casual encounters, some of which work better than others. But one of them — involving an a cappella quartet — is so brilliant it makes up for the weak spots.

There are two problems with this film. One is that it strives to express an allegorical dimension of place and time, and while some aspects of this are conveyed clearly, others are a bit hazy. The other is that despite Keidan’s original and witty dramatic structure, he struggles to keep the plot going during the work’s one hour and 45 minutes.

Some parts collapse into monotony, but this is still a film to be taken seriously. It’s an interesting accretion to contemporary Israeli cinema.

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