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.