Everybody knows the rule: When you’re inside the family, you’re allowed to talk smack about the family. Just be prepared for the family to smack you back.
Israeli writer Amos Oz, often called his country’s best hope for a Nobel Prize in Literature, found that out when he published his 2002 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” The title referred directly to his mother, a profoundly depressed woman who took her life when he was 12. It refers obliquely to his native land, which he respects and chastises through the book. Some Jews thought it revelatory; others thought it literary treason.
Natalie Portman loved it enough to make her feature film debut as writer-director with the screen adaptation. The Oscar-winning actress also took on the main female role to give it bankability – and to give herself a fine part – and she’ll hear the world’s reaction as it rolls out in 2016. Charlotteans will get an early look when “Tale” caps the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival March 13.
One of the last lines in the script refers to Oz’s view of life on a kibbutz, which he longed to try as a youth: “A fulfilled dream is a disappointing dream.” But it may refer to Israel itself, whose promise of sanctuary and unity for Jewish people has disintegrated over the last seven decades.
“I don’t want to shove that (idea) down people’s throats,” said Portman, sniffling through a heavy cold on the phone from New York. “I think people can interpret it with what they bring to the movie about relationships, political views – but that’s a valid interpretation.
“The chasm between dream and reality is part of accepting life as it is. The fantasies will always be better than the realization. The challenge for modern-day Jews (is to see) that a real country has real flaws, good people and bad people, triumph and failure. You can be self-critical without being self-hating.”
A star in the right place
Portman occupies a uniquely cosmopolitan place in show business. Born Natalie Hershlag in Jerusalem in 1981 to an Israeli doctor and an American-born artist, she was raised in the United States and became a dual American-Israeli citizen. She’s married to French dancer-choreographer Benjamin Millepied, who until recently directed the Paris Opera Ballet, and lives with him and their son, Aleph, in Paris. (The boy’s name is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.)
She’s been famous since her teen years, when she simultaneously went to Harvard University and appeared in the first three “Star Wars” prequels. She won a best actress Oscar for playing a deranged ballerina in “Black Swan” in March 2011, a few weeks before Oz sent an Arab-language copy of his memoir to imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti. Oz wrote this dedication in Hebrew: “This story is our story. I hope you read it and understand us as we understand you, hoping to see you outside and in peace.”
Critics and audiences swiftly divided over whether this was an act of reconciliation or treachery – or both, as Barghouti had been defined as a terrorist by Israeli courts. Portman decided to use her newfound filmmaking clout to bring the memoir to the screen.
But why did Oz, himself born in Jerusalem when Palestine was still a British-controlled territory, trust a woman who had never written or directed a feature?
“I don’t know. I hope he felt my love and passion for it, my respect for him but my desire to make my own piece. He was exactly what you’d want from someone who has written a book you admire: supportive and helpful but not restrictive in any way.”
Learning from the masters
And she had assistance. Slawomir Idziak, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer of “Black Hawk Down,” shot “Tale.” When she got stuck, she ran ideas past Oscar-nominated directors she’d worked with: Darren Aronofsky, Terrence Malick, Mike Nichols. “I had the great luck to have them as mentors and friends,” she said. “I got advice from Mike not long before he died (in November 2014), and that was a blessing.”
Portman balanced the film neatly between episodes in Israeli history, including statehood for Israel in 1948, and the life of young Amos, whose ancestors (like Portman’s) had fled from Poland and Russia.
Though she told the Times of Israel “You are a representative for your people, whether you want to be or not,” she approached this story as more of an outsider.
“I have this strange point of view, being part of it but also outside of it. That’s something Israelis and Palestinians have in common: You can’t avoid being asked what it’s like to be from that (group), like you’re somehow bound by that. An artist wants to be free of that, a citizen of the world.”
Yet she didn’t make this film just for Jews: “It’s a universal immigrant story at the most basic level. Something I left out of the final cut was an amazing thing Amos writes about in the book.
“His family were such Europeans that they’d rather have gone to England, France, Sweden, the U.S., anywhere. But they were rejected everywhere, and Palestine was the place that accepted them. Many people we call Zionists now were refugees who’d have gone anywhere else, if they could.”
Charlotte Jewish Film Festival
The 2016 festival runs Feb. 20-March 13, mainly at Ballantyne Village Cinemas with occasional events at Temple Israel and Our Town Cinemas in Davidson. A pass to all 12 films costs $115, saving you $30 over individual pricing. (Separate screenings cost $10 to $25.) Get details at 704-554-2059 (voicemail only), or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or going to charlottejewishfilm.com.
The series opens Feb. 20 with “Dough,” a comedy that stars Jonathan Pryce as a London baker whose sons have no interest in the family business. He reluctantly takes on a Syrian assistant, only to find business booming when the new employee accidentally drops cannabis into the challah. Secret guests are scheduled to attend the screening, and a dessert reception will follow.
Here are some other highlights (dates are still in flux so check the website for those):
“Rock in the Red Zone” – This documentary centers around Sderot, half a mile from Gaza and directly in the path of Hamas rockets. This region of refugees from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East created new music in underground bomb shelters, mixing Middle Eastern influences and traditional Western beats to transform Israeli music. The film’s star, Avi Vaknin, will play live after the screening.
“Apples from the Desert” – The only child of cloistered Sephardic parents in Jerusalem breaks taboos, attending dance classes and forming a relationship with a secular kibbutznik. Her angry father retaliates by setting in motion a prearranged marriage to an older widower with children of his own. This won an audience award at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Free desserts follow.
“Breakfast at Ina’s” – Ina Pinkney fed Chicagoans for 33 years, first out of a small bakery and then from her beloved breakfast nook in the West Loop. Ina, who survived polio as an infant, now suffers the effects of post-polio syndrome and decided to close the doors of her establishment in 2013. After this documentary screens, Ina will serve noshes made from her own recipes to moviegoers.
“Wedding Doll” – A strong-willed young woman with a mild mental disability embarks on a romantic relationship, despite the anxieties of her overprotective mother and financial hardship when the factory where she works shuts down. Moran Rosenblatt (who also stars in “Apples from the Desert”) won best actress at the Israeli Academy Awards and Jerusalem Film Festival for this performance.
“Once in a Lifetime” – An experienced, no-nonsense teacher in a French school (Ariane Ascaride) tries to overcome the apathy of underprivileged, inner-city pupils by getting them to enter a national competition on the theme of child victims of Nazi concentration camps. They resist her until a face-to-face encounter with a Holocaust survivor changes their attitudes.