Cry the Beloved Country

Washington City Paper | May 4, 2006
Free Zone begins with a fixed nine-minute take—and an instantly understandable mood. Sitting in the back of a car while a Passover standard recounts a cycle of death, a young woman cries. And cries. And cries.

Ostensibly, the tears are personal. An American whose father emigrated from Israel, Rebecca has just broken up with her Israeli fiancé. She’s now all alone in Jerusalem save for Hanna, the tour guide who’s at the wheel and eager to rid herself of the blubbering tourist. But Rebecca is also crying for the entire blood-spattered area, so she can hardly be excluded from the next few hours of Hanna’s life. Besides, Rebecca is played by Natalie Portman, the first Hollywood star ever to appear in a film by Israeli director Amos Gitai, so you know she’s taking the whole ride.

“I have to get out of this country,” laments Rebecca, who has just discovered a dark incident in her fiancé’s past. Conveniently, that’s just what Hanna (Hanna Laslo) has in mind. She has to cross the border into Jordan and travel to the “free zone” at the junction of Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia—a ready-made symbol of the scarcity of interconnection among the region’s locked-down countries. Normally, Hanna’s husband, Moshe, who adds armored plates to used cars that are then sold in Iraq, makes the trip across the frontier to collect the proceeds from the man who sells the vehicles, who’s known as “the American.” But Moshe (Uri Klauzner) was recently injured in an unexplained explosion, so Hanna must substitute for him.

As Rebecca and Hanna travel toward the zone, a series of flashbacks explain what transpired between Rebecca, her fiancé, and his mother (who, to add another level of internationalism, lives in Spain and speaks little English or Hebrew). These are presented as double exposures, as if the recent past is something that might reflect in the windows of a car moving through an ancient land. After a few wrong turns and troublesome border inspections, Rebecca and Hanna arrive at their destination. But the American isn’t there. Instead, they encounter his Palestinian-born wife, Leila (Hiam Abbass, seen last year in Paradise Now and Munich). And so it’s an American, an Israeli, and a Palestinian who continue the journey.

This isn’t the setup for a joke, even if Free Zone is so programmatic that it’s hard to take it entirely seriously, at least as drama. Gitai, whose Kadosh depicted the oppression of ultra-Orthodox Israeli women with more ferocity than anything in Mehta’s chronicles of Indian patriarchy, is proposing that women can find pragmatic openings where men see only ideological barriers. Yet despite a contrived scene in which all three women groove to a reggaefied tune, Gitai and co-writer Marie José Sanselme’s script isn’t all female bonding: Hanna and Leila bicker frequently, while Rebecca is on board primarily to be a witness. Near the end, she listens to a pocket history of the Palestinian experience in which Americans, Israelis, and fellow Arabs all betray the refugees. And Rebecca’s final gesture is pure allegory—although it’s unclear what else she, or the nation she represents, is supposed to do.

The opening scene serves a stand-alone example of Gitai’s nerve—and Portman’s crying ability—but it also exemplifies the movie’s style: a cunning mix of documentary-style filmmaking and minimalist theatricality. A nighttime sequence in a Palestinian-refugee village lit by arson fires has the immediacy of live news footage, but its dark skies, dancing flames, and silhouetted camels, all impeccably shot by cinematographer Laurent Brunet, suggest the climax to an opera. Despite committed performances from its three central performers, the movie never convinces as the story of three actual women. But as an odd combination of Israeli and Palestinian testimonies and border-zone sound-and-light show, Free Zone is altogether compelling.

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