Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 19, 2016 5:38 am 
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Portman's adaptation of Oz's book is drably dutiful

An actor who turns to directing does so in the shadow of his most notable directors and roles. Brady Corbet's recent debut The Childhood of a Leader wore the distinctive marks of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, with whom he has worked. These influences led to a film that's pretentious and a bit boring, but strongly redeemed by exciting cinematic invention and surprising maturity - a failure, maybe, but a most promising and fascinating one. Natalie Portman's first turn at the helm, in which she chose to star and do the writing, evokes the spirit of Darren Aronofsky - particularly the punishing Osscar-winning performance he drew out of her in Black Swan. Here too, she plays a suffering, obsessive, doomed woman.

But this time instead of a ballet dancer she's the melancholy wife of a drab librarian and would-be professor, in the years before Mandate Palestine was turned into the State of Israel, and before one of Israel's most famous writers, Amos Oz, a child and her son in the film, became a writer, driven to do so, perhaps, not so much by his own nature (he wants to be a farmer, he says, or a dog-killer) as by a need to process his mother's suicide when he was twelve. It's hard not to suspect that as a film project it was the martyred mother that attracted Portman, who was born and lived her first three years in Israel, to star in, direct, and write the adaptation, in Hebrew, of Oz's autobiographical bestseller, A Tale of Love and Darkness. Oz was born in Palestine in 1939 and essentially grew up with the country, a painful and uneasy process for both. The book is a rich and ingenious, and sometimes humorous, work. Oz has said that in it he wished to "erase the distinction betwen the comic and the tragical." To adapt such a work might challenge the most experienced adapter, and clearly Natalie bit off more than she could chew. At the same time she did not go far enough. Given the complexity of the book, which Linda Grant, in her Guardian review of it, called "Dickensian," trying to recreate it onscreen in only 95 minutes seems reductive.

Oz's book is packed with stories that admittedly could not be crammed into a film. Portman's adaptation is a halting, mostly pallid effort that lacks the flair and cinematic sophistication of Corbet's debut. It's not clear whether the focus is on the boy Amos (the doll-like, largely expressionless Amir Tessler), from whose point of view events are frequently recounted, sometimes from an old man's angle, or on his unhappy mother, Fania (Portman). Of course it's about both, but the confusion is a sign of shaky construction. Bent on dreariness, heavy on mournful nostalgia, the film is drably yellow-tinted. The whole thing feels like one long flashback. Portman's presentation of the principal characters makes them more pathetic than touching, but she reigns. As Andrew Pulver put it in his Cannes Guardian nreview, "Homely, bespectacled Arieh (Gilad Kahana) and even glum little Amos (Amir Tessler) are inevitably overshadowed by Portman’s near-radioactive screen presence." Pulver is also right to point out the film delivers a strictly Jewish version of the Arab-Israeli conflict, despite showing Oz's advocacy of a two-state solution early on. I wonder if this is not more Portman's view than Oz's own more disillusioned and realistic one.

The birth of a nation (and a conflict still ongoing), the story of a marriage, a coming of age, the mental decline of a woman: all these Portman's adaptation tries to dole out to us, with not much narrative thrust for any one thing. Dad is seen talking about etymologies to his son: his fascination with words seems quaint and impractical, and he tells about being beaten up by anti-Semites in the old country as a schoolboy, and his father then being humiliated for protesting. Later other boys steal Amos' sandwich. Meanwhile, there are political events, and Fania is fantasizing, doing the laundry, and moving toward a meltdown. A film combining all these elements is a juggling act to challenge the most experienced cineaste.

There is one memorable and well-developed sequence of little Amos, when his father takes him to visit a wealthy Arab. It's a gesture in the direction of coexistence, which Arieh thinks possible. He tells Amos good manners are highly valued by the Arab hosts and that he must be rigorously polite. Instead, the impetuous boy becomes embroiled in an intense (and on both sides astonishingly precocious) political discussion with a Hebrew-speaking Arab girl his age, encountered in a garden with a swing, and he impresses her with his manly, intense recitation of some Hebrew poetry. The entente however is shattered when, playing too violently on the swing, he accidentally causes injury to a smaller boy, the girl's younger brother, perhaps, and the visit ends in disaster. It's a thought-provoking, relatively vivid scene, rich in metaphorical implications but also peculiar and specific.

If only any of the rest of the movie stood out like this. But most of it maintains that consistently faded quality of a half-hearted flashback. Little Amos is clearly overshadowed by his neurotic, melancholy mom, who eventually draws all the attention by becoming virtually catatonic. Arieh's desperate measure of sending her from Jerusalem to be with her sisters in Tel Aviv only leads to tragedy. Its origins are a mystery belatedly clarified by information tacked on at the end about Fania's posh background in Rovno, in Ukraine, the relative harshness of life in a dusty lower- middle-class suburb of Jerusalem, and her dreams of a handsome lover. Earlier, when she has told her husband to "go and play," it's not at first clear if she's infantilizing him or suggesting he find a more cheerful lover. It's the latter. But she and her motivations are never clear.

The film is packed with scenes, including fantasies, anecdotes, and flashbacks. Portman should have pared down more, resisted the temptation to film so many of them that they become at most afterthoughts or footnotes. One can feel for her. It's could have been fascinating stuff, especially for someone who identifies with modern Israel. But she ought to have spent more time on making Fania, Arieh, and little Amos more three-dimensional and sympathetic. The ending is a another half-hearted afterthought, a brief flash-forward, finally in full natural color, of Amos 15 years later, trying to be a man, a farmer, at the Hulda kibbutz where he went to escape from his conservative father. But the details of Amos' life at the kibbutz in the book, including his sexual awakening, are left out, and it's just a glimpse, as inert as almost everything else.

The film is also a linguistic dumbing-down. Oz's book is in Hebrew, and his parents spoke to him exclusively in that language but among themselves they largely spoke Polish and Russian. They read in French and German and other European languages, and dreamed in Yiddish. Natalie Portman learned Hebrew on Long Island, and took graduate courses at Hebrew University, Jerusalem when she was 23. I am curious to know what the dialogue of the film seems like to sabras of Oz's generation who grew up with European parents, as he did.

A Tale of Love and Darkness, 95 mins., (Hebrew title סיפור על אהבה וחושך), debuted at Cannes May 2015, also showing at Toronto and a few other festivals. It was not submitted as an Israeli film for the Best Foreign Oscar and it has won no awards. Metascore 48%. US theatrical release 19 August 2016.

See Uri Klein's plainspoken review in Haaretz, "How Natalie Portman Ruined an Amos Oz Book."

A talk by Amos Oz given at Stanford available on YouTUbe sheds much light on the book itself.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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