We are assured by Judge Kerry Birmingham that this movie really does involve a Palestinian, a Jew, and Natalie Portman, and is not just the set-up for a joke.
"It's a pity the Israelis won't speak Arabic like the Palestinians speak Hebrew. If they do, I think, perhaps, things will change."
It's understood that there are some situations that are beyond simplistic breakdowns. To distill something that complex, a movie has to boil that down to roughly two hours and a series of recognizable tropes and conventions, complex events reduced to basic ideas and images for the convenience of telling a story. Free Zone attempts to tackle Middle Eastern politics, with all the historical and cultural baggage that comes with it, through the deceptively simple notion of three women trying to close a business deal.
Facts of the Case
After abruptly breaking off her engagement with her Israeli fiancé, American-born Rebecca (Natalie Portman, Closer) hops into a cab driven by Hanna (Hanna Laslo). Hanna has her own problems: her husband recently injured by a car bomb, she must drive from Israel into Jordan's legally nebulous "Free Zone" to collect money from his Palestinian business partner, a man referred to only as "The American." Reluctantly dragging the distraught Rebecca with her, Hanna instead meets Leila (Hiam Abbass), The American's associate, and neither woman likes what the other has to say…
The very first scene of Free Zone indicates the kind of movie this is going to be. For nearly seven minutes, in a continuous close-up, Natalie Portman cries. In the background, what is evidently some kind of folk song or nursery rhyme about one creature eating another gathers in speed and intensity as Portman's Rebecca weeps, contorts, and convulses for the better part of ten minutes. Once Rebecca composes herself, she imposes on her driver to take her away, anywhere, and the driver, working-class Hanna, takes Rebecca on what should be a simple errand and turns into a cross-country, cross-cultural odyssey that involves lots of staring out of car windows at desert roads and run-down buildings (Jordan, at least as presented here, sure is an ugly country).
This indulgent opening scene is not the last time writer-director Amos Gitai covers an essential lack of story momentum with stylistic flourish. Flashbacks are not cut or dissolved to, or maybe shot in black and white, but rather superimposed over the endless scenes of Hanna driving. Even these are minimal: we see Rebecca in her stifling family situation (complete with overbearing mother-in-law) and Hanna facing the awkward proposition of having to fill in for her husband on his errand. The information is sparse, and with little more background, Rebecca and Hanna begin their cross-border road trip.
This, as described, is the plot in its entirety. In the case of Free Zone, it's neither the journey nor the destination, but rather the travelers that matter. Meant to embody all the conflicts of their respective homelands in microcosm, these strangers in a strange land chatter their way through suspicious guards and equivocating middlemen, underlining as they go the parallels and divisions between two cultures divided by politics, religion, and history (to say nothing of their roles as women in their respective cultures). It's weighty subject matter for any film, a fact of which Gitai seems conspicuously aware throughout. The peculiar camera tricks attempt to mask what is mostly implied profundity; rather than say anything directly about the precarious circumstance that is the Middle East, Gitai instead lets the situation and its implications play out in the interplay between Rebecca and Hanna and, later, Leila, who, like Hanna, is a representative for someone else, the elusive "American."
The search for "The American" and the subsequent reveal of his identity is neither surprising nor all that relevant, though it does become the object of the three women's quest. Thrown together for a common goal, the three women-a Jew, a Palestinian, and the nebulous Rebecca (like Portman herself, Rebecca is of mixed heritage and often finds her "Jewishness" questioned, least of all by herself)-attempt to close a business venture that becomes more and more abstract and protracted the deeper they go into Jordan. "The American" is, really, a thematic device more than a storytelling one: a man without a country in more ways than one, it's easy to make the connection between expatriate Rebecca and, from there, to Hanna and Leila, separated by a pact neither of them fully understands but feel obligated to keep. Gitai banks on the viewer finding these connections compelling enough to sustain the story, but it doesn't. The movie seems aware of its own gravity, as if a tacit acknowledgement of its subject matter imbues it with depth and complexity that's largely unearned by the story. The result is a ponderous, frankly dull meditation large on ambition but light on fundamental storytelling elements to propel it. By the time the final scene arrives, as abrupt as the opening is prolonged, it's unclear what we're meant to take away from the movie. It ends on an absurd, futile note played for comedy, ridiculous and tragic at the same time. This may have been the point all along, but the road to get there is as long as the one Hanna's taxi takes.
Portman gives a typically excellent performance: however pompous that opening shot may be, it's difficult to express that much sustained anguish in a single, uninterrupted take. Laslo, as blunt, practical Hanna, won an acting award at the Cannes Film Festival, which is, perhaps, an overstatement of what is an otherwise fine, natural performance that mostly entails saying "Where is the money?" in three different languages. In a film dependent on the dynamic of its actors, you could do worse than the three actresses who carry this movie.
Sound and picture are adequate, though Gitai's insistence on long, seemingly unrehearsed takes (resulting in a feel consistent with his background as a documentarian) means there is great deal of ambient noise on the soundtrack and voices are often lost in the mix. Aside from the trailer, the sole extra of note is an audio interview with Gitai that originally aired in 2006 on WNYC. Though brief, it illuminates some of the issues of the film and Gitai's somewhat unconventional approach to the material.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In an age where political commentary is hammer-blunt and given the thinnest of fictional guises, there's something to be said for Gitai's approach, which appropriates none of the plot elements (or jingoism) of more heavy-handed dramas. Gitai could have easily milked the violent backdrop for dramatic potential and moralistic hand-wringing, but that he instead chooses to address a complex issue through ordinary characters as they travel through an unromantic landscape is an admirable—and daring—approach. There's a certain bravery in his approach (and I don't mean solely because of the controversy caused when they filmed an "immoral" kissing scene between Rebecca and her beau at Jerusalem's Western Wall). There may not be a whole lot of bombs bursting in air and heroic gestures, but it's refreshing to find a drama willing to take a quieter, more pensive, and more subtle route, even if the end result is too ambiguous for its own good.
Free Zone circumvents having to address the convolutions of Middle Eastern politics by leaving its point (and its plot) dangling, proposing no answers to an unsolvable situation and hoping that the implication of a complex answer to a complex problem is enough. The message seems to be one of communication and understanding, but the argument is couched in such low-key and ambiguous terms that it comes across as thematically flaky, and uneven storytelling to boot. It's an admirable attempt on Gitai's part, and the cast seems just as willing to push for a more grounded take on the Middle East, but the result is toothless commentary and, possibly worse, not even compelling drama.
There's a lot of guilt flying about in this film, so why not add a little more? Guilty, says I.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Audio Interview with Director Amos Gitai
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