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 8-year-old Amos (Amir Tessler), annoyed at everyone's insistence that he'll one day be a writer, growing up the child of Ashkenazi Jews 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 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 afterward 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.
Portman films some conventional coming-of-age drama. We see Amos bullied at school and then later discovering that his imaginative powers can win him the fascination of the other boys. But his yearnings are neither made clear nor allowed to drive the film. In quick scenes, often propelled by music rather than dialogue, we watch him watch his parents or wander smoking fields to gather glass bottles to make Molotov cocktails for the 1947 war. It's not clear what he makes of this. He's a reactionary force in a film that affords agency only to Portman's Fania and the sweep of history, and Portman's script offers too few scenes in which Amos can flower or surprise us — or himself. One promising segment, toward the end, finds the boy pursuing his mother in secret as she embarks on some mysterious errand. Fania eventually stands alone in a street, gazing upward, and the film cuts from this to a vision, from one of Fania's tales of wanderers and suicides, of a woman in a similar pose. It's unclear, though, as you watch, whether this is in the mind of the son, the mother or both.
For all that, Portman's Tale offers raptures and beguilements, a visual poetry that on occasion matches Oz's prose. Savor her gliding study of many Jewish settlers holed up in one apartment, with sandbags stacked between bookcases and blankets hung between families. Or the passage on the first stirrings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, read by a narrator over footage of Israelis and Arabs in the 1940s. Portman keeps her scenes short and her film barreling along, and if she can't resist the occasional jarring close-up or unnecessary insert shot, she also exhibits daring and curiosity: A more experienced director might not risk showing us, from Amos’ perspective, what it looks like when mom rubs a towel over your head when you're fresh out of the bath.
In the last half-hour, the story moves from an episodic dash through the founding of Israel and into more personal material, with Fania overmedicated, slumped into a funk, moved only by her love of Amos. It ends tragically, of course, but also with hope: Promising young Amos grows up to be Amos Oz. Portman, too, is promising and headed someplace: She's more interested in psychology — of a nation and a family — than in simple drama, and at her best she manages to illuminate it on the screen. She's also, unlike most American directors, blessedly uninterested in violence.