Free Zone: Amos Gitai Tale of Women, Starring Natalie Portman

Both continuity and change mark Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai’s latest picture, Free Zone.

First, it’s Gitai’s first film to center exclusively on women, while relegating the men to secondary characters; there are only two brief male roles. There are no less than three of them, an American, an Israeli, and a Palestinian, who could not have been more different. Second, structurally, Free Zone is a road film, since most of the “action” is set within a car driving from Israel to Jordan.

The film’s first scene is audacious. In a single, long shot, we see a close-up of Natalie Portman’s Rebecca sobbing in the back of a car driven by an Israeli woman named Hanna (Hanna Laslo). Rebecca has just broken up with her Israeli boyfriend-soldier and has no place to go. The scene resonates strongly since it’s accompanied by a very particular music, “Had Gadiah,” a Passover song, which Gitai chooses to render in its entirety.

To begin a film in Jerusalem in front of the Wailing Wall, the remnant of the scared shrine of the ancient temple destroyed by the Romans, is a bold decision replete with religious meanings. And indeed, the picture’s first reel is bold, suspenseful, and disorienting since we don’t know who the women are or where they are going. If that scene sounds symbolic, it is. The whole movie could be interpreted as an allegory about crossing borders, both physical and mental.

Stylistically, Free Zone is innovative, too. To show the women’s subjective memories and the contexts in which they live, Gitai uses layers of images, sometimes eight simultaneously, instead of the more conventional use of flashbacks. His strategy aims to show that the women’s past is integral to the way they perceive the present. However, Gitai is only semi-effective in integrating fragments of dysfunctional memories into a coherent narrative.

The three women represent types that embody different political and personal values. Hanna, the Israeli woman, is strong and factual–a bit of a bully–but she is also charming. In the film, Hanna travels to the Jordan’s Free Zone to collect some money owed to her husband Moshe, who is stranded in Jerusalem and unable to execute the business transaction. In a later flashback, Hanna recreates the politically-motivated explosion in which her husband was wounded.

In Jordan, Hanna comesface to face with Leila (Hiam Abbas), a smart, educated Palestinian businesswoman. Kinder to Leila than to Hanna, Gitai portrays her as a more reserved, elegant, and respectful woman; at first, Leila is shocked by Hanna’s informal and confrontational manner.

The film’s most conflicted persona is Rebecca, a young woman trying to interpret the world for herself and make up her identity. A American with an Israeli father and a non-Jewish mother, makes her non-Jewish too, according to Jewish law. Nonetheless, Rebecca feels Jewish, even Israeli. Credibly cast, Portman, who grew up in Israel, is given some dialogue in Hebrew.

Most of the tale is set in Eastern Jordan, an area designated as an economic free zone. It’s a No Man’s Land since there are no customs and no taxes. People from neighboring countries, like Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Israel come here to sell and buy cars.

After an intriguing set-up, the plot (slender as it is) begins to ramble. Gitai doesn’t know when and how to terminate his ambitious tale; the ending is both arbitrary and abrupt.

That said, as bleak as Free Zone is in its political views, it also points to the possibility of female empowerment and even camaraderie. At one point, the three women sit in Hanna’s car and one by one join together singing a melody that’s playing on the radio.

It’s rare to see a political film about women made in Israel. Has Gitai become a feminist filmmaker Whether naive or realistic, Free Zone reflects his liberal-feminist philosophy, as he notes: “Women are more practical than men, they try to get along.”