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Translating Amos Oz to the Big Screen

Dan Grossman
September 5, 2016

by Dan Grossman

BuzzGuide-TALE-OF-LOVE-AND-DARKNESS"A FULFILLED DREAM is a disappointed dream,” goes the voice-over at the end of A Tale of Love and Darkness, a new film directed by Natalie Portman based on Amos Oz’s 2001 memoir. The line is spoken while a teenage Oz shows his father around the kibbutz where Oz has fled from trauma. Despite his dreams of becoming a heroic pioneer, Oz still doesn’t feel at home. The line also applies to the experiences of Oz’s mother, Fania (Portman), who as a young woman flees European anti-Semitism to the Holy Land, only to find it dirty, poor, and dangerous — far from the paradise she imagined as a schoolgirl.

“Disappointed dreams” is also a good description of what happens when you adapt a book into a movie, or when you watch a treasured text get realized on the big screen. But a successful adaption climbs over that disappointment en route to something that’s both different and compelling. Unfortunately, Portman’s adaptation, to this self-confessed fan of Oz’ book, is both different and dull.

Certainly, Portman gets points for taking up the challenge. Oz’ 538-page memoir explores texts and literary traditions in ways that are forbidden to a visual artist. Bracketed between the end of World War II and the death of his mother in 1951, with long rambles into the past and future, Oz’s tale is so full of books that not only are characters defined by what they read (Fania carries “a deep romantic mustiness . . . somewhere between Sorrows of Young Werther and Lord Byron”), and not only by what authors they act out (“Kerem Avraham, the area where we lived, belonged to Chekhov”) but by the shape and style of their bookshelves (the library of Y.S. Agnon is “like a crowded congregation of worshippers dressed in shabby dark clothes.”) Everyone claims to be a poet, scholar or political visionary: Amos’ grandfather writes odes to the Hebrew language in Russian, Amos’ father toils away in obscure scholarship, and it’s only a mild twist when Oz tells us that “when I was little, my ambition was to grow up to be a book.”

The grotesqueries of Russian literature, the zest of Yiddish legends, and the newness and volatility of Modern Hebrew merge in Oz’ story, even in the English translation. Oz shows how his identity — along with the identity of modern Israel — is itself a chaotic adaptation of clashing books and ideas. Language is the axis of change. In a brilliant scene, young Amos loses his enchantment with rightwing politician Menachem Begin when Begin uses the word for “to arm” (“President Eisenhower is arming the Nasser regime!”) that for Amos’ generation refers to the male sex organ. Good luck filming that scene.

Above all, the memoir soars on the back of Oz’ verbal energy, curiosity and joy in small things. A local handyman is brought to life with a single nickname, Baruch Goldfingers, and family members liven up scenes with their wit, oddities and laments. Even David Ben Gurion shows up to deliver a ranting lecture about Spinoza. So when the darkness comes, in the form of war and family tragedy, it’s set against this wide and dynamic backdrop. Poignancy is contrast.

YOU WON'T DO much laughing during Portman’s film. Visually and dramatically, the film is awfully heavy on darkness. Part of this is because it concentrates its ninety-five minutes on the troubled family rather than on the broader canvas. But the bigger problem is that the film splits the perspective between young Amos and his mother, with more weight to the latter. Fania is the emotional core of Oz’ book, but she’s also such a mystery that he takes hundreds of pages to circle around her, picking up glimpses, pieces of letters and family stories, before looking at her directly. Though a powerful presence, she’s a tough mind in which to anchor a film, and the result is a somber descent into ever-deepening twilight.

Or is this just my private disappointment? Unburned by fantasies of what the adaptation should look like, is it possible that a viewer would be more receptive to its quiet virtues? Gilad Kahana captures the nervous disappointment of Amos’ father, Arieh, and Portman does her best with the hyper-anguished Fania. The family drama intensifies alongside the birth of Israel, and there are glimmers of the book’s rich texture in the fables and memory that Fania tells her son.

But despite its strengths, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting thrilled or inspired by the film. In the bland universality of its tone and style, it could be set anywhere, at more or less any time. The flashbacks and dream sequences hold the film up like crutches. It limps.

In the book, Amos Oz’ aunt tells him, “‘Papa used to say, every tragedy is something of a comedy, and in every disaster there is a grain of enjoyment for the bystander.’” Now there’s a vision. In the film, this tragicomic belief — the crux of Jewish humor and art — drowns in darkness.

Dan Grossman is a writer living in New York City who wrote for us recently about Yeshiva University's exhibit about Yefim Ladyzhensky and Isaac Babel.