Natalie Portman proves herself a filmmaker of intelligence, ambition and inventiveness in her debut as a director and writer -- just not one who is always certain as a storyteller. A Tale of Love and Darkness adapts, with a passionate somberness, several threads from Amos Oz's autobiographical novel of the same name, and it's excellent in many individual moments, focused on states of mind and states of states. The ostensible protagonist is eight-year-old Amos (Amir Tessler), annoyed at everyone's insistence that he'll one day be a writer, growing up in Jerusalem in the years just after World War II. He and Israel come of age together, which is concept enough for any feature, but Portman's focus is wider to a fault.
The director plays Amos' mother, Fania, a fabulist storyteller in the first reels and a near-catatonic depressive in the last few. Portman is commanding and affecting in the role, but her film is sometimes confused in its perspective and emphasis. Fania is trying to find happiness in her unromantic marriage to the academic Arieh (Gilad Kahana). We study the process of her borscht-making, behold the full cinematic visualization of the cryptic tales she spins for Amos and we see her alone, in the bathroom of the family home, willing herself back into perfect-wife radiance after slapping her own face until the tears come. Amos glimpses his mother's self-flagellating episode, but not her quick cleanup afterwards or the toll it takes to pull her shattered self back together. Even when a grown-up Amos looks back, in sometimes stirring narration, Fania is this Tale's subject and center -- despite the film insisting otherwise. Still, Portman is promising.