Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Three for the Road

(Amos Gitai, Israel/Belgium/France/Spain, 2005, 35mm, 90 mins.)


People will basically crawl, when they're completely exhausted and shaken,
to stretch their arm out to the other side. I had hoped that people were al-
ready sufficiently drained by this violence, but apparently not. They still have
the energy, and determination, to create more suffering and inflict more death.

-- Amos Gitai to The Village Voice (2000)


The first question I had about this film, after noticing the star and the setting,
was this: How did Natalie Portman become involved with an Israeli production?
So, I did a little digging around, and came across Caveh Zahedi's GreenCine interview with Amos Gitai. Here's what he said when Zahedi asked him about this:

Natalie Portman wrote me a number of emails and then when I didn't answer her, she
sent me faxes, saying that she would like to make a film with me in Israel. And then
after several months I called her and suggested we have a meal together, which we
did. We had dinner in Tel Aviv, and she told me a little bit about her family background --
the fact that she is the daughter of an Israeli father and an American mother. And I
thought I should include her in this project I was preparing called Free Zone.

So, there you have it. Hers may be the most famous name, but there are actual-
ly three leads: Rebecca (Portman) is American, Leila (Hiam Abbas) is Palestinian, and Hanna (Hanna Laslo, who won the best actress award at Cannes) is Israeli.

If the film sounds schematic, that's because it is. Upon breaking up with her Israeli fiancé (in flashbacks, his mother is played by Almodóvar favorite Carmen Maura), Rebecca just wants to get out of Jerusalem, so she persuades Hanna, a taxi driver, to take her to the Jordanian Free Zone bordering Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Hanna is headed there anyway. Once they arrive, Hanna tries to track down "The American" who owes her money. When he proves elusive -- a reference to Waiting
for Godot
, perhaps -- she attempts to negotiate with his business partner, Leila.
And that, in a nutshell, is the story, but Kippur's Gitai dresses it up in a number
of different ways. Some of them work, some don't. For instance, the above in-
formation is doled out very slowly. So slowly, in fact, that I wondered if he hadn't blown the feature up from a short. Like many films these days, it would've work-
ed better at 60-70 minutes, as I don't believe there's 90 minutes of story here.
I liked it anyway -- the performances, at any rate -- but some scenes are allowed to
run on for too long. The 10-minute opening is a prime example. The film begins
with a close-up of Portman's profile. She's sitting in a vehicle, but it isn't clear where she is (the location is later revealed as the Wailing Wall). As a mournful version of
the anthropomorphic traditional "Chad Gadya" plays in the background, she be-
gins to cry. And cry and cry. Till the mascara runs down her face in rivers of black. Because I didn't know who she was or why she was so upset, it felt more like Gitai was trying to exploit Portman's acting abilities than to advance his narrative.
Portman rises to the challenge, but the more seasoned Laslo and Abbas have her beat. The girl in the pink mohair sweater is simply less interesting than Hanna and Leila, so they end up leaving more of an impression. In the case of Abbas, that's particularly impressive, since she doesn't enter the scene until the second half of the film. Then again, I could watch Abbas read the phone book -- she's that magnetic.
Free Zone ends as it began with a scene that goes on and on. In this case, how-
ever, it's clear that Gitai is going for allegory -- and that was the point at which I realized the entire film was an allegory. (I hate to sound dense, but most of the action is so naturalistic, extraneous exposition aside, I honestly had no idea).
Plus, the end credits play over this part, so it feels less like an acting exercise.
The implication is that this sequence, standing in for Israel's relationship
with Palestine -- and vice versa -- could go on forever. Yes, it's a cynical no-
tion...probably pretty realistic, too. But what makes the film equally humanist
is the fact that all three women are essentially likable. There is no hero, but
nor is there a villain. Nonetheless, the American has options that aren't avail-
able to the Palestinian and the Israeli. Sadly, that seems pretty realistic, too.
The Seattle premiere of Free Zone plays the Northwest Film Forum Sept. 29-Oct.
5. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, please click here.
You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times. Incidentally, if the name seems familiar, you may have also seen the Palestinian-Israeli Abbas in The Syrian Bride or the Oscar-nominated Paradise Now. To bring
things full circle, E. Steven Fried interviewed Zahedi for Siffblog earlier this year.
Images from New Yorker Films, Rotten Tomatoes, and Spirituality & Practice.

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