At the beginning of Free Zone, Amos Gitai
’s latest incarnation of the Middle East and its misunderstood culture, we sit and watch Natalie Portman
hysterically cry for, I shit you not, 15 minutes. If it had been silent, I would have called Gitai some sort of transcendentalist, but instead, we are listening to “Had Gadia,” a traditional Israeli song that reeks just a tad of our current war culture. So, why is Gitai so interested in Portman crying, besides the fact that she is right outside the Wailing Wall and she is Natalie Portman? It’s a bumpy start, but you’ve got to be impressed by a guy who studies the architecture of a face in the time it would usually take most filmmakers to initiate the film’s plot.
While Rebecca (Portman) is crying in back, Hanna (Hanna Laslo
) barks from the front for her to get out of the car. They argue, Rebecca pleads, and eventually, Hanna agrees to bring Rebecca along with her on her journey to the Free Zone, an area where shady dealings can go down ungoverned. The journey goes from Jerusalem to Jordan, during which we learn that Rebecca has left her fiancé because of his mother’s intolerance of her. They find Leila (Hiam Abbass
), an assistant to The American (Makram Khoury
), a businessman who owes Hanna a substantial sum of money for her injured husband. Their search for the American leads them to a garden compound, where houses and shacks are being set ablaze, and Rebecca ends up being the only one who meets and talks with the American. Article continues below
Gitai has a lot of original, strong ideas working here. Instead of playing the back story through normal flashbacks, he simultaneously shows the present and the past through superimposition. The effect runs the gamut as far as how convincing it is (it becomes annoying and grating with too long a take) but it’s disorienting enough to conjure up the feeling of your mind being somewhere else while the present is happening. Also, Gitai employs long takes, and I mean long takes. After the first 20 to 25 minutes of Rebecca, we are stuck on Hanna for what seems like another 15 to 20. Israeli music being a bit annoying, this technique doesn't work well in the opening shot, but sometimes it has a calming, meditative effect and allows the actresses to really show off their talents.
Portman, an actress who often finds herself saddled with trite dialogue (the Star Wars films, the overrated V for Vendetta
), does well with her often intrusive close-ups, and though the music dulls the effect, her raging sadness in the opening is hard to shake. Hanna Laslo, who justly won the best actress award at last year’s Cannes, is the film’s bruised heart, and shows the grit and strength of Israeli women with humor and a certain grace. Though given the least time on screen, Abbass registers just as strongly as she did in last year’s Paradise Now, and her dialogues with Laslo are expertly executed. What ultimately keeps the film in limbo is a lack of a third quarter. The film has a decent opening, a very good middle, and then ends on a somewhat ambiguous note (which can be good depending on the film’s ultimate goal). In a film that is so concerned and in love with its female characters, Gitai sort of leaves them in a lovable sing-along and doesn't really think of the available reach and conclusion to these three extraordinary women.