Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Tale of Love and Darkness: Portman Adapts Oz

If great writers must be forged in a crucible of suffering, Amos Oz had a good start growing up amid all the warfare and terrorism directed at the early state of Israel by its belligerent neighbors, but his manic depressive mother really put him over the top. The writer’s complicated relationship with his mother and his nation are duly explored in Natalie Portman’s adaptation of Oz’s autobiographical novel, A Tale of Love and Darkness (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Fania Klausner died at the tragically young age of thirty-eight, but it wasn’t a suicide bombing that killed her. She was once the pampered daughter of a wealthy and respected Eastern European family, but she always idealized the settler’s life in what was then referred to as Palestine. Yet, somehow she wound married to Arieh Klausner, an especially bookish librarian. She seems ill-suited to the harsh realities of war-torn Israel, but her love for her son Amos will initially compensate for life’s bitter disappointments. Unfortunately, her depression will grow steadily deeper, dragging her down to a very dark place.

Given its iconic stature and relentlessly elegiac tone, Oz’s book is quite a gutsy property for Portman’s directorial debut. Frankly, it is pretty darned impressive how deftly she brings out the novel’s humanist themes. There is considerable craftsmanship evident in each frame, especially Slawomir Idziak’s classy cinematography. The fact that the film is not a complete and utter downer suggests Portman has some legit talent behind the camera. Despite playing Klausner as a tragic beauty worthy of Joan Crawford, Tale never feels like Portman’s vanity project, which is saying something. In fact, she is often quite poignant in the part.

Still, the relationship between the elegant Mother Fania nee Mussman and Gilad Kahana’s plodding Arieh Klausner remains a one-sided mystery. Although they have believably functional-dysfunctional chemistry together, just like a married couple with long, complex history together, they still look jarring together. Young Amir Tessler has the appropriate preciousness for the young future Amos Oz, but he often seems weirdly aloof, as if he were aware his older self was narrating each scene.

There are indeed pacing issues and rocky patches, but scenes that trace Amos Klausner’s development into Amos Oz (a surname he adopted for its Hebrewness), Israel’s preeminent novelist (translated in China, which is saying something) ring with resonance. Despite Oz’s reputation as a left-wing advocate of a two-state solution (but not a compete pacifist or appeaser), Portman’s adaptation largely avoids political statements. For the most part, it is a highly respectable literary period production. Better than early reviews have indicated, A Tale of Love and Darkness opens this Friday (8/19) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.