Straight out of the gate, Free Zone is ready for its close-up—in this case, a nine-minute fixed shot of Natalie Portman in profile, crying, recovering, and bursting into tears again as she gazes out a car window. Not since the final scene of Tsai Ming- liang’s Vive L’Amour has a film enacted such a patient testament to convulsive waterworks, and crybabies everywhere will applaud Ms. Portman’s possibly unsurpassed mastery of the lachrymal arts (see also her bravura sobbing freak-out in V for Vendetta).
As characters in Amos Gitai’s films are incapable of non-metaphorical acts, we know that Portman’s Rebecca is crying for an entire region; just to be sure, the button-pushing Israeli director places her near the Wailing Wall. An American in Israel, Rebecca leaves her fiancé, Julio (Aki Avni), after he confesses to his participation in an apparent atrocity at a refugee camp; Julio recounts the episode within a flashback, as Gitai renders present and immediate past through multiple superimpositions, layering the images like delicate sheaths of tissue paper. Not long after the heartbroken girl hitches a ride to anywhere with brassy Hanna (Hanna Laslo), however, both Rebecca and the movie’s early enthusiasm for visual experimentation recede in deference to the main event: the battle of wills between Hanna and cool, mournful Leila (Hiam Abbass of Paradise Now), a Palestinian. Hanna’s husband sells armored cars in the “free zone” of eastern Jordan, where customs duties and taxes are waived; when he’s injured in an unexplained blast, Hanna drives to the free zone to seize a $30,000 debt from Leila, or rather, from her mysterious “American” associate.
Free Zone thrives on its performances—watch as Laslo’s Hanna makes a sisterly touch of hands with Leila and then starts bullying her anew. Forever stuck in traffic or haggling at borders, Gitai’s characters inhabit a familiar state of chronic aggravation, which further inflames the allegorical standoff between Hanna and Leila. Per usual, Gitai largely eschews exposition, but his reticence sits awkwardly beside his penchant for saddling his deliberately stereotyped figures with trite, unwieldy speeches and symbolic-ironic biographical data. Oddly, in representing a private conflict as the microcosm of an unsolvable catastrophe, Free Zone only manages to miniaturize both.