Reviews

Free Zone (2005)

Jake Meaney

After the initial early promise of its opening 15 minutes or so, the film resorts to spinning its wheels, then driving down dead-end alleys, and then plowing head-long into exactly the sort of heavy-handed didactic symbolism that gives me fits and has me reaching for the remote.


Free Zone

Director: Amos Gitai
Cast: Natalie Portman, Hana Laszlo, Hiam Abbass, Carmen Maura, Makram Khoury
MPAA rating: R
Studio: New Yorker Films
First date: 2005
US DVD Release Date: 2007-05-29
Trailer

Whatever you ultimately think of the remainder of Amos Gitai's Free Zone, it's hard to argue against the singularly arresting power of its opening scene. An uninterrupted eight-minute take of Natalie Portman breaking down and bawling her eyes out in the back seat of a cab, it is at once supremely discomfiting and hypnotically enthralling, extremely tough to bear but also impossible to look away from. We have no idea what to make of this, or how we should feel -- we don't know who she is, or where she is, or why she's crying -- all we have is her face, her spasming mouth, her breath choked, the trails of mascara down her cheeks, her eyes darting about for some sort of relief, salvation, something, that will assuage her apparently unbearable grief.

It's an audacious way to open a film, to say the least. Whether it is profound or a cheap stunt really depends on what you make of the rest of the film; this scene is entirely apropos of either reading. That it's soon revealed that she is crying while parked in the rain near the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem gives a quick hint that subtlety may not be Gitai's primary concern here. Soon enough, we also find out the girl, Rebecca, is all broken up over breaking up with her fiancé, whom she left for nebulous reasons which have something to do with his time in the Israeli army.

With no friends or family in Israel (Rebecca is from New York), she begs the cabbie to go -- just go! -- except the car she's in, driven by a middle-aged Jewish woman named Hanna, isn't really a cab after all, and she (Hanna) is actually on her way through Jordan to the "Free Zone", a neutral trading zone abutting Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Rebecca could not care less, and so off they drive, crossing borders, crossing the boundaries of the past and present, and crossing from narrative into didactic political allegory.

Turns out Hanna's husband is a mechanic who retrofits vans with armor plating and sells them to the Iraqis via an American businessman, who holes himself up in the Free Zone. Somewhere along the way, a deal went sour, and Hanna is owed $30,000, which she intends to collect. As she and Rebecca travel across Israel and Jordan, the back story of each is filled in via superimposed scenes drifting in and out of their road trip. Early on it seems like Gitai might be delving some place deeper than a simple road movie, suggesting maybe some sort of meditation on female Jewish identity vis-à-vis national identity -- nothing profound, but definitely something you don't see every day at the movies.

However, with the introduction of Leila, the Palestinian contact for the American businessman, upon arrival in the Free Zone, it quickly becomes apparent that Gitai has been moving rather stridently in a whole other direction all along. With all the subtlety of an atomic bomb, Free Zone devolves rapidly into a stark political allegory, curdling into exactly the sort of polemical didacticism I feared it would succumb to. Hanna and Leila begin incessantly squabbling over the money and its "suspicious" disappearance, while Rebecca acts as a sort of neutral passive observer, shuttling back and forth between the two, only interfering to complain about how hungry she is. Eventually they agree to go to the "American's" compound, which for some reason has been set ablaze by locals, and of course the money is again nowhere to be found. Apparently, the businessman's son may have absconded with the dough, so off they set again, momentarily at peace, trying to hunt down the son in a nearby refugee camp. But again, Hanna and Leila, after a brief respite, renew their squawking, and Rebecca, fed up, bails, running out across the border and towards the horizon.

I had no idea what to do with Free Zone. Even at a mere 90 minutes, it's an interminable slog. After the initial early promise of its opening 15 minutes or so, the film resorts to spinning its wheels, then driving down dead-end alleys, and then plowing head-long into exactly the sort of heavy-handed didactic symbolism that gives me fits and has me reaching for the remote. Portman, who you'd think from the opening scene would be the focus, quickly fades into mere window dressing, her story, her position as anything other than American, regressing into the background. Hanna (played with bumptious chutzpah by Hana Laszlo, who won Best Actress at Cannes for the role) and Leila, rather than emerging as distinct characters, circle around one another as forces on opposing sides of a divide who may as well be the same person.

Though blackly humorous, their final verbal squabble, which closes out the film's final moments and into the credits, might as well have been the entirety of the film itself, a simple reductive representation of a very complex geographical, religious, and political dispute which will spin itself around without cessation apparently forever. And perhaps the way watching Free Zone seems to slow time down to a imperceptible crawl, reinforcing the millennia of conflict plaguing this region, is the film's only, if probably not at all deliberate, virtue.

The only extra feature contained on this New Yorker Films DVD release is an audio interview with the director, done in April 2006, on the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC. Gitai pretty much confirms all of my worst suspicions of the film, making the allegorical composition of the film explicit. Very little insight is gleaned, though one interesting tidbit was that the film was originally supposed to be of three men traveling together, rather than three women. I’m not sure how much difference this gender change made, but the fortuitous inclusion of Portman at least made the film somewhat palatable -- I wonder if I’d been able to make it through Free Zone’s tedium without her.

3

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image