A Tale of Love and Darkness
by writer/director/actor Natalie Portman
I first read Amos Oz’ A Tale of Love and Darkness a decade ago when it came out in translation. It was the first time I read a book and immediately envisioned the film. The power of Oz’ language, combined with the deft description of Jerusalem during the birth of the Israeli state, sparked my imagination with its similarities to the stories I had heard growing up about my own family.
Ultimately, the story is between a boy and his mother, and the space she creates for him to fill with his stories. The fantasies and tales they concoct together help illuminate the darkness in their lives. The mother, Fania, is an immigrant to then-Palestine from Eastern Europe, and longs for the world she came from, even though it no longer exists. The son, Amos, comes of age as a writer as his mother fades and as the young state rises.
I chose to make the film in Hebrew, as I thought one could only get the authentic sense of Jerusalem and of Oz’ world with the specificity of the true language of the place. So I sharpened my own language skills to play Fania, and cast incredible first-time Israeli actors in the roles of Amos (Amir Tessler) and Arieh (Gilad Kahana). Amir is absolutely instinctive, and I was blessed to find a child as intelligent and emotionally tuned-in to play the inestimable Amos Oz. Gilad is a well-known rock musician in Israel and is absolutely the opposite of Arieh in his real life—he comes in wearing leather jackets and chain necklaces. But he has the same love of language and intellectual curiosity, as well as the immigrant experience (he is originally from Mexico) to color his portrait of Oz’ father.
I was lucky enough to work with the great Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (who created the stunning Kieslowski films Blue and The Double Life of Veronique) to contrast a Jerusalem of bleak reality, as well as romantic fairytales of love and intrigue that emerge with the mother and son’s stories. My close friend, Nicholas Britell, with whom I went to college and who now has composed for 12 Years a Slave and The Big Short, wrote gorgeous music that evokes the combined immigrant experience of old world Europe and the young Israeli state.
This film has been my passion and focus for the past several years, and I’m excited to now be able to share it with audiences. The immigrant experience of idealizing the place you’re going to before you get there, and idealizing the place you’ve left once you’re gone, is something many of us can relate to. And the way the young Amos translates that longing into art through storytelling, gives us something to aspire to.