Written by Raquela Bases
Growing up, Natalie Portman was a household name. My cousins knew her as Anakin Skywalker’s love interest, “Padme,” my mother, as the down-on-her-luck single mom, “Novalee Nation.” My friends and I recognized her from her roles in the cult classics Garden State and V For Vendetta. And to my brother, she stood out for her hauntingly powerful performance in Black Swan, which won her a 2011 Academy Award.
Natalie, or Neta-Lee, Portman was born in Jerusalem and lived in Israel until she was three. She speaks Hebrew fluently. Her great-grandparents were Holocaust victims, murdered in Auschwitz. She once sat alongside my relatives during high holiday services in West L.A., reciting the Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) with them in unison.
Through Hollywood’s eyes, Natalie Portman is first and foremost an actress. Recognized for her success and her talent, her heritage – Jewish, Israeli, or otherwise – is not the public’s focus. Therefore, it struck me all the more that she undertook the direction and screen adaptation of Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, and cast herself as the female lead.
In A Tale’s execution, Natalie Portman takes ownership of her Israeli roots in a very public way. It was important to her that the dialogue remain in Hebrew, the language of Oz’s writing, the language of the childhood on which it is based. Having lived most of her life in the United States, she employed an accent coach to perfect the sound of her Israeli dialect. Delivered in the original language of Amos Oz’s memories, the film is a more authentic representation.
A Tale of Love and Darkness, set against the backdrop of Israel’s budding independence in the late 1940s, portrays an episode of Oz’s youth surrounding his mother’s emotional health and eventual suicide. Portman plays Amos’ mother, Fania, a character at once secretive, tortured and loving. Through actualizations of Amos’ remembrances of her stories, viewers learn some of what causes her suffering. Amidst pearls of old-world wisdom, Fania recounts traumas from her life in the Ukraine – a woman who sets her shack of a home on fire, an officer who puts a bullet to his head on the living room sofa. And, we are shown her tired fantasy of an Israel of strong, healthy, hopeful pioneers. Confronting the reality of life in post-British Mandate Israel, Fania sinks into a deep and ultimately fatal depression. Embedded in and essential to the story of a mother-son relationship is a narrative of connection to Israel, and the challenges inherent in the newly independent country’s reality.
In this day-in-age, especially in the company of other liberal-minded millennials, I sometimes feel like any mention of my own connection to Israel, however unrelated to a political stance, is taboo. This feeling is uncomfortable.
In part, my connection is one of peoplehood. To visit a site like the Western Wall, where, before mine, the folded notes of so many, of my mother and grandmother and great-grandmother, have been shoved, is an ancestral experience. But the bind I feel as a Jewish person is only one aspect of my love for the state. Perhaps even more forcefully, I am drawn to Israel out of a deep curiosity and interest. Natalie Portman shares this viewpoint with me, commenting, “Israel is absolutely fascinating. It is the kind of country where you put your finger on a windowsill and you get an interesting story. It’s interesting to be from a place and feel part of a place, but also a stranger in it.” I find Israel captivating. It is colorful. Its inhabitants are diverse. In Jerusalem on Shabbat, it is peaceful. At 2:30am in Tel Aviv, bustling and alive. It is a nation rich in complex history and riddled with often solemn traces of it.
With the release of a film like A Tale of Love and Darkness, which so vitally pivots upon Israeli history, Portman makes a statement. She is not saying, “I stand with Israel and support all of Israel’s political moves,” but rather, she simply communicates, by adapting Oz’s novel for the big screen, “I have read this story. It is of and about the people I am from. It is worth telling.”