"My mother grew up in an ethereal culture of misted beauty," intones the elderly narrator of Natalie Portman's directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness.
Audiences will know a similar feeling: The actress' ambitious adaptation of the autobiographical novel by Israeli author Amos Oz - chronicling his family's journey through the tumult and tragedies behind the birth of the nation of Israel - boasts an ethereality, a misted beauty, that often overpowers the story itself.
Wheeling with flashbacks, dreams, allegorical reenactments, slow-motion shots, and painterly tableaux - with Portman as Oz's mother, Fania, often set in silhouette against stormy skies - A Tale of Love and Darkness strives for a mood of elegiac grace. The striving shows.
Portman, who wrote the screenplay (which is in Hebrew), has assembled an accomplished cast: Gilad Kahana plays Arieh, Fania's husband, a writer and scholar with round-rimmed glasses and a look of strained affection. Amos is mostly played by the young actor Amir Tessler, conveying keen curiosity, a budding intellect, an air of watchfulness and worry.
The film runs from 1945, with Palestine in the last throes of British rule, to 1953, the state of Israel firmly established, and there are periodic flashes ahead to the modern day. So the cast also has Yonathan Shiray, who plays Amos as a teenager working on a kibbutz. And there is Alex Peleg, who plays Amos as an old man. (The elderly Oz's voice-overs are supplied by yet another actor: Moni Moshonov.)
A Tale of Love and Darkness is a sad tale, about a marriage that didn't work, about a woman who didn't feel right about her place in the world, about a boy who grew up with bloodshed all around him. Books and storytelling became his refuge, and Portman captures the delight the boy found in language.
Portman also faithfully transplants many of critical passages and observations from Oz's book. The author's analogy about the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews, likening them to "two children of the same abusive father" - the father being a Europe that long exploited and persecuted and repressed - is set against grim archival footage of battle, violence.
A Tale of Love and Darkness loses itself in dreamy imagery, in its studiously crafted aesthetic. But there are times when Portman lets the toughness, the tenacity, the emotional heart of Oz's story shine through.
A Tale of Love and Darkness
2 1/2 stars out of four stars
Directed by Natalie Portman. With Natalie Portman, Gilad Kahana, and Amir Tessler. In Hebrew with subtitles. Distributed by Focus World.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five.