Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
A cheerful heart is a good medicine,
but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.
The human spirit will endure sickness;
but a broken spirit—who can bear?
Natalie Portman’s first film, for which she also wrote the screenplay (in Hebrew with English subtitles—she was born in Israel), is based on the 2002 autobiography of Amos Oz, possibly the best known of Israel’s many talented writers. She also plays Amos Oz’s mother. Indeed, her adaptation is as much about Fania Klausner (during his teen years Amos changed his last name) as it is about the son. Set mainly in Jerusalem during the British Mandate, the film begins in 1945 when Oz was just six, before his mother’s deep depression tragically influenced the family’s life—though Fania, a gifted story teller, already shows her inner darkness in the stories she tells her son.
The family has embraced the Zionist dream of a homeland where Jews would be safe from the persecution that had afflicted them. Fania had grown up amidst wealth in Poland, and fortunately emigrated with her family to Palestine before the Nazi invasion. At Hebrew University in Jerusalem she met and married Arieh (Gilad Kahana), a scholar who works at a library from which he receives a meager salary. He has written a book that no one wants to buy (except for a friend who secretly buys out the bookshop to encourage the author). With such a small income the family ekes out a Spartan living. When Fania’s mother visits she is disdainful of their shabby apartment and lifestyle. After one visit when she has criticized her daughter, Fania slaps her own face several times. The ever observant Amos (Amir Tessler) sees this. He also is present at the dinner table when his other grandma offers faint praise of Fania’s borsch, and then says how it should really be made if it is to taste good.
Fania tells the boy many stories, and Arieh passes on the etymology of Hebrew words. He explains that in Hebrew the word for childlessness is related to the word for darkness and both suggest the absence of light. Fania’s stories are very dark—one of them involves a Polish officer who shoots himself and another is about a wife whose drunkard of a husband gambled her away to be used by the winner, and who eventually burns herself to death in a shed. These might be more gruesome than those of the Grimm brothers, but nonetheless, she instills story telling in the boy. He solves his bullying problem at school by launching into a story about Tarzan, cowboys and Indians and a snake. He stops at a suspenseful moment, telling the now hooked older boys that he will continue the story the next day. No more worries about bullying.
The friendly but precarious relationship between Jews and Palestinians during the Mandate is shown when the family attends a birthday party hosted by an Arab family. Outside the home the parents lecture Amos on being polite and respectful. Attracted to a girl his own age sitting on a swing in the backyard, he talks with her, sharing his belief that “there is room for two peoples in this land” (a belief he still holds). However, when he climbs the tree and accepts the girl’s dare to hang on the chains of the swing, a weak link breaks, the seat hitting a smaller boy close by. In the resulting hub bub the Klausner’s make an hasty exit.
Amos adores his beautiful mother, absorbing her words, such as: “If you have to choose between telling a lie or insulting someone, choose to be generous.” The boy asks, “ I am allowed to lie?” “ Sometimes… yes. It’s better to be sensitive than to be honest.” Looking to the future, she tells him, “I think you will grow up to be a sort of prattling puppy dog like your father, and you’ll also be a man who is quiet and full and closed like a well in a village that has been abandoned by all its inhabitants. Like me.”
The family listens to the radio broadcast of the U.N. General Assembly vote ratifying the creation of the State of Israel. All celebrate the decision, but Fania continues to slowly sink deeper into depression, becoming, as she had said of him, “closed like a well in a village that has been abandoned by all its inhabitants. Like me.” She is not abandoned, although the boy apparently did not see much evidence of his father’s love for her. Neither husband nor son can help her escape her dark moods. Not even an extended visit with her sisters in Tel Aviv can bring her around.
There is a strange scene in which we hear the words from Deuteronomy—“Choose life…”—while a man wearing a prayer shawl walks along a desert cliff. Unfortunately Fania cannot do this. Neither she nor her husband believe in God. Her stories reveal her deep regrets: instead of the weak man she has married, they are populated by strong men more in keeping with her youthful romantic dreams. Relations between husband and wife have reached the point where the despairing Arieh says, “She punishes herself only to punish me.” Deprived of love by husband, parents, and in-laws, Fania lives only for her son Amos. Eventually this is not enough. She ended her own life at the age of 38 when Amos was 12. The film ends with a brief account of the teenaged Amos a couple of years after his mother’s death leaving home to join a kibbutz. It was during this period that he changed his last name to Oz, a word meaning “strength.”
Many of the film’s scenes are interspersed with narration and commentary by the older Oz (voiced by Moni Moshonov, but played by Alexander Peleg). His story takes place amidst great changes, the birth of Israel being the chief one, the fulfillment of the dream of generations of Jews. But from his personal experience of the period Amos Oz observes that change is illusory, even declaring that “a fulfilled dream is a disappointed dream.” Not the most optimistic outlook. Although his parents survived the darkness of the Holocaust and saw their dream of their own homeland become reality, this did not bring happiness. The boy’s vision that “there is room for two peoples in this land” has not become reality, stymied by the hatred on both sides. The story of the life of Amos Oz and his parents is indeed “A Tale of Love and Darkness”—and something similar might be said of his beloved nation Israel. I think this is an important film for Americans to see because it leads us beyond the stereotype of the fanatical Zionist opposed to all Arabs. The film does not deal with current events, but it does show Israel as a complex society with equally complex families such as the Klausners.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of Visual Parables. If you appreciate this and other reviews, please considering buying an issue or taking out an annual subscription.