Free Zone

on April 07, 2006 by Sheri Linden
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Director Amos Gitai's storytelling strategy works only fitfully in "Free Zone," which uses a road trip through the Middle East as occasion for history lessons, heavy on the metaphor. The presence of Jerusalem-born Natalie Portman in her first Israeli film will draw attention to the art-house item, but except in rare moments when the story transcends its symbolism, the talky drama is stillborn.

One of the only compelling parts of "Free Zone" is the eight-minute dialogue-free opening sequence set to Chava Alberstein's dark interpretation of the traditional Passover song "Had Gadia," the camera holding Portman's sobbing face in tight close-up. It gradually becomes clear that the unbearable sorrow of 23-year-old Rebecca, though it feels big enough to encompass the suffering of the entire Mideast, is as personal as it gets: She's just ended her relationship with her fiancé (Aki Avni) and fought with her would-be mother-in-law (Carmen Maura). Distraught and at loose ends, the recently transplanted New Yorker pleads with her car-service driver, Hanna (Hanna Laslo, who took home Cannes' Best Actress prize), to let her accompany her on a trip from Israel to Jordan.

The two women embark on the eight-hour drive across borders with a trunk full of someone else's baggage--an apt metaphor for the region's inherited prejudices and divisions. Hanna, it turns out, is subbing for her injured husband on a trip to a business associate, from whom she'll collect money owed them for the armored cars they sell to Americans and, in turn, Iraqis. At her destination, Leila (Hiam Abbass) also is standing in for her husband, and when circumstances preclude an easy transfer of cash, the three women must travel a bit farther. Histories of loss and suffering suffuse conversation: The blunt-spoken Hanna proclaims that her parents are from Auschwitz; wary Leila says defiantly that hers are from Palestine.

For those who don't live in the area, the story's sociopolitical context isn't always clear, although Gitai and co-scripter Marie José Sanselme stud their dialogue with litanies of historical fact. With characters more often than not functioning as mouthpieces, audiences might feel like involuntary passengers trapped in the backseat. The film has a more expansive sensibility in the late going and intriguing views of seldom-filmed areas, but Gitai, who created complex female characters in "Kadosh," never lets this trio come fully to life. Starring Natalie Portman, Hanna Laslo, Hiam Abbass, Carmen Maura and Aki Avni. Directed by Amos Gitai. Written by Amos Gitai and Marie José Sanselme. Produced by Nicolas Blanc, Michael Tapuach and Laurent Truchot. A New Yorker release. Drama. Hebrew-, Arabic- and English-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 91 min

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