The films of writer-director Amos Gitai aren’t famous for narrative coherence or technical slickness, and “Free Zone” certainly doesn’t break the mold. It’s a sort of a confined but international road movie centering on three women of different backgrounds brought together by a trip from Israel through Jordan and to the eponymous region–an area of northeastern Jordan contiguous with the borders of Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia, where black market activities flourish. But despite dealing with a journey, the confused and confusing movie seems to go nowhere.
For American audiences the most notable thing about the picture will be that its star is Natalie Portman, who plays Rebecca, an emotionally troubled American whom we first see, in a dreadfully protracted shot, weeping as she’s being driven toward the Israeli-Jordanian border by the pudgy, voluble Israeli Hanna (Hanna Laslo). Flashbacks and overlapping scenes will reveal that Rebecca has left her boyfriend, an Israeli soldier who had participated in some sort of atrocity at a Palestinian refugee camp. And though they don’t bother to show us how she and Hanna met, they do reveal that the older woman is en route to the Free Zone in order to collect money that her husband, recently injured in an explosion, is owed by a mysterious figure called The American. When the duo reach their destination, they find the Palestinian Leila (Hiam Abbass), who reluctantly agrees to take them to The American. Their search is interrupted by coming upon a house fire, apparently involving the man’s son, but eventually they reach the man himself (Makram Khoury), who’s actually a Palestinian who despite his nickname is actually a Palestinian returned from a long residence in the United States. But at the end nothing is resolved, with Hanna and Leila still locked in what seems endless argument over the missing money while Rebecca flees into the sunset.
There are some interesting elements in “Free Zone.” Laslo and Abbass create vibrant if not always intelligible characters, aptly embodying the mistrust and animosity that exist between Israelis and Palestinians. (Portman, on the other hand, is stuck playing an opaque figure whose mood swings often seem inexplicable. It’s not her fault she can’t bring such a character to life.) And the film, shot in an utterly naturalistic, almost amateurish fashion by Laurent Brunet, does take the viewer to some little-seen areas. Some of the grace notes (like a welcoming owner of a gas depot along the way, or the contrast drawn between the brusque Israeli border agents and the more accommodating Jordanian guards) are briefly incisive, too.
But overall the film is just too disorganized and amorphous to have much impact. The intent, no doubt, is to mimic the randomness and pervasive danger of life in the region, but the result is frustrating rather than enlightening. The script also has a habit of degenerating into didactic speechifying from time to time; Khoury suffers particularly from his affliction.
Perhaps “Free Zone” will be of some academic interest for students of the Middle East situation, but as drama it has much less to offer. The inherent interest of such a “borderless” region simply isn’t utilized very effectively in this drab, dreary picture.