Sun 29 Nov 2015
When it comes to films inspired by books I find the discussions about whether the book was ‘better’ (or not) than the film futile. I also do not consider films being ‘true’ to the books that inspired them as being a necessary virtue for this category. Literature and cinema are very different forms of art. They create emotions and they trigger thoughts each in very different manners. Even if the words in a play by Shakespeare or in a novel by Tolstoy are the same as in the film inspired by these, emotion comes from a different place for readers, theater audiences and movie audiences. It is somehow easier for me to avoid this kind of discussion in the case of the very ambitious project that was undertaken by already famous actress Natalie Portman for her debut as a film director, as I did not read (yet) the memoirs of Amos Oz that bear the same name – A Take of Love and Darkness.
From what I get from critics and friends who have read the book, Portman selected out of the very rich and complex memoirs that cover the first fifteen years of the life of Jerusalem-born Amos Oz one specific thread with a personal touch about the relation between the young boy and his mother and focused the film on it. This may have been a fine choice, as the change of perspective and the decryption of the character of the young woman who came to Mandatory Palestine from Europe before the breaking of the war, her cultural shock, the building of the relationship with her son, the facing of historical developments and family crisis ending in the suicide that marked the biography of the writer – all these make of some fascinating material. And yet, the film seems to miss the target, it is slow and seems long despite its under 100 minutes duration. It may have been the deep respect for the text which let director Portman believe that she must be true not only to the spirit but also to the letter of the book. Maybe a more mature director, maybe Portman herself ten or twenty years from now if she continues on the directing path would have had courage to build a more independent story with the risk of competing with the words of the writer. She did not do it, unfortunately.
The result is a very literary film, and this is not meant as a compliment here. There are a few beautiful things in this film. Cinematography by Slawomir Idziak is exquisite – with the metaphors of dreams, of the Old Country, of the darkening skies of Europe covered by the birds of prey. Portman’s acting is also sensible and touching at the key moments. The labyrinth of Jerusalem’s narrow streets has both charm and also enhances the sensation of claustrophobia and pressure. Two many other aspects are however missed by: the roots of the psychological and physiologic decay of the mother, the build-up of tension between father and son that leads to the decision of the boy to change the course of his life. I am afraid that the non-Israeli audiences, or audiences not familiar with the history of Mandatory Palestine and the making of Israel will have a hard time understanding the details and the atmosphere, and there is not enough consistency in the characters (not to speak about action) to make them interested in the drama. I usually dislike using off-screen voice in movies. The words spoken off-screen are the most beautiful part of this film, and this is no wonder, as most of them are quotes from the book of the great writer who is Amos Oz. Their role in the film is to explain what the director could not translate in images. This is a problem. ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ never takes off as a movie.