Rebecca (Natalie Portman): Fuck the future.
Julio (Aki Avni): What do you mean by that?
The first shot of Amos Gitai’s new film, Free Zone, is arresting. Natalie Portman cries for eight minutes. The context is unclear (though the Wailing Wall stands in the background), the soundtrack plays “Chad Gadya” (a Passover song about a lamb eaten by a cat eaten by a dog beaten by a stick burned by fire doused by water). The shot is close on her profile, her mascara is running, the light changes, barely, as she appears to be looking out a window. It’s raining outside, some umbrellas become visible, as she speaks, at long last. “Can we go?”
Portman plays Rebecca, an American in Tel Aviv. She’s in a cab here, and she’s speaking to her Israeli driver, Hanna (Hana Laszlo, awarded the Best Actress prize in Cannes last year). “Can we leave this place?” When the driver, who is for the (lengthy) time being off screen, thinks they actually can’t. “Let’s get out of here, please.” Hanna’s voice answers, “I can’t take you.” She can’t, she says, “because I have a very important meeting in Jordan.” And then she does. Hanna agrees to take Rebecca with her to Jordan, even though it will mean trouble at the border and a passenger — paying or not — whom she doesn’t know and doesn’t, frankly, need to know. Still, Natalie Portman is crying. It’s hard to say no.
The film is about their journeys, separate and together, and only nominally in Hanna’s car. Both women have painful recent histories, glimpsed briefly as they move forward. Rebecca’s is revealed in flashbacks rendered in a series of dissolves, a couple of conversations between her and her husband, Julio (Aki Avni), a Spanish-born Jewish soldier who explains to her, patiently, in response to her persistent questions, that he raped a peasant woman in a village his unit had demolished. Did he kill anyone? “Not with my bare hands.” Though Julio says he “wouldn’t call that rape,” Rebecca’s face, torn and again in close focus — this as her present face is also visible, in the layered images — suggests she would. I’m leaving you,” she says. “You’ll be fine.”
For herself, however, she realizes, “I’m nowhere now.” Having arrived in Israel in search of her own background (her father is Israeli, her mother not Jewish), Rebecca now flees it. The endless rage and fighting are unfathomable for an outsider. She needs to go home, whatever that might be. As Hanna’s car approaches the Jordanian border, she instructs Rebecca to keep her mouth shut (“Do you have a weapon?” ask the guards, hardly noticing the answer as they scan the car interior and wonder whether they should “take it apart”).
The guards are suspicious: in her large sunglasses, “The girl looks like a hooker.” As they question the women about the large number of bags they’re toting (this after Hanna says she’s only making a day trip), Rebecca comes up with an unexpected solution: she offers to leave her several suitcases — which she’s brought for her long, self-searching trip, for her life with her soldier — at the checkpoint. This literalization of the metaphor the film is working — it’s all about baggage, in its way — both simplifies the problem and reveals the stark impossibility of ever simplifying it in quite this way. Baggage in the Middle East is intractable, unshakable, noxious.
Impressed at her fare’s generous ingenuity, Hanna begins to warm up to her, though she reveals nothing of herself, her husband Moshe or her visit to Jordan. Best to keep the naïve American unknowing, and so, briefly, unafraid. Their journey through the Free Zone, a customs- and tax-free region in-between Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, is at once meaningful and meaningless: they remain isolated from one another, even in the tight confines of the car, emphasized by the camera’s concentration on their faces, only occasionally looking out the car window to show desert, traffic, more checkpoints.
As she drives, however, Hanna remembers, and you see trauma, again, without clear context — place or time — but resonant with history, ongoing and horrific. She’s just watched Rebecca leave the seeming safety of the vehicle to go inside a gas station for coffee with the attendant (“Come back,” she says wearily as Rebecca’s form recedes in the frame), Hanna remembers an explosion at a facility where she’s milking cows. Again, the camera is too close on her profile as she leans into a cow, a rumble alarms her, and she rushes outside, the camera following her, taking her point of view, panicky and erratic. When she reaches the outside, Moshe (Uri Klauzner) lies on the ground bleeding.
“Moshe isn’t well,” she says by way of non-explanation back in the present. Rebecca asks what he does, and Hanna explains he sells armored cars to the Americans, and to the Iraqis. Rebecca sighs: “I was hoping for something a little more romantic. I was thinking camels and hookahs and sand dunes.” This even as she looks out the window and on occasion sees just that: the romance and the desolation exist side by side.
Hanna is headed to Jordan — in the place of her husband — to get money ($30,000) owed to them by “the American,” actually a Palestinian named Samir (Makram Khoury), who has lived in the States since he was a child, evacuated from a battle zone. But when Hanna arrives at the appointed meeting place, he’s nowhere to be seen, and so she begins to argue with the woman who is there, the Palestinian Leila (Hiam Abbass). Insisting that Leila take them to the money, Hanna drives tem to her home, which is, at the time they arrive, on fire. Smoke and flames and camels — the space is unreal and all too real at once. “I hate it,” says Hanna. “I hate violent people.”
Rebecca remains an observer to the violence, startled and yet increasingly immersed. When Leila learns that Rebecca speaks Hebrew, she’s impressed. She speaks it as well. “You know,” she says, “I think it’s really important to learn the language of your enemy. It’s a pity the Israelis don’t speak Arabic like Palestinians speak Hebrew. If they do, I think perhaps things would change.” But for now, things cannot change. Though the women can never quite comprehend their separate lives, they intersect and fall away from one another repeatedly over their hours together. They cross over, but they retreat, they connect and struggle, unable to stop.