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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Free Zone" (2005)

“Free Zone” opens with a 10-minute single take shot of Natalie Portman crying her eyes out. It’s a compelling way to open the film, but it could be read two ways: this is either showboating for a possible award nomination or it’s a means of showcasing the talent of one of the finest actresses of her generation. I prefer the latter, but once the movie ends, I can understand someone wanting to take the other position. The shot, in and of itself, moved me. The rest of the movie did not.

It’s a frustrating experience. Portman’s performance in the opening shot promises so much in terms of the character we’re with, where we might go with her and even what she’s been through. She projects a great deal of heartbreak and personal strife and she displays it so effortlessly, that you realize she just might secure herself some serious nominations. She sits in the backseat of a car and stares out the window, which she occasionally rolls down during her emotional outbreak. We don’t know where she is or where she’s going, but she never wipes the tears from her face and she never seems conscious of the fact that she’s acting.

Then the driver speaks. The cab is being driven by a woman named Hanna (Cannes Best Actress winner Hannah Laszlo), who is on her way to Jordan’s Free Zone, an area in the Middle East where people from Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Israel can buy and trade freely. Hanna tells Portman’s character (named Rebecca) that she has to drop her off so she can run a more important errand. Rebecca convinces Hanna to let her ride along, for she has no where else to turn since dumping her fiancé moments earlier. When Hannah asks Rebecca if she has any other friends, she replies “They’re all his!”

As they travel to Hanna’s destination, director Amos Gitai employs a brave narrative trick: As Hanna talks to her, Rebecca stares out at the desert roads of Jordan with her mind still on the events that led her to this place. Gitai utilizes four or five shots overlapping one another as we see (among other things) Portman in the car, the desert roads and the conversation that took place between Rebecca and her fiancée. It’s a beautiful sequence that, again, promises so much and seems perfectly in tune with Rebecca’s state of mind. She’s too wrapped up in the break-up to notice the rest of the world around her.

The second time Gitai attempts this style, the movie loses its audience. It becomes too much to try and assemble. The story also takes a strange turn, and not for the better. Portman, literally, takes a backseat to two other characters: Hanna and the woman from whom she is supposed to pick up a sum of money. This woman, Leila (Hiam Abbass), claims to not have the money (supposedly left my Hanna’s husband’s partner). The two constantly bicker back and forth about the whereabouts of the money and the movie suddenly loses what made it special.

Gitai claims that the dialogue was mostly improvised and it seems as though the story was too. It is by no means complete, nor does it have any pay-off or sense of closure. There are no doubt political and social allegories at work here, but Gitai seems unable to make anything substantial out of them. The improvised dialogue isn’t strong enough to support the flimsy narrative and the storyline isn’t cohesive enough to support the stylistic choices, either with the camera or from the actors.

Basically, the first half-hour of “Free Zone” works and, for a few moments towards the end, Rebecca’s journey gets examined and remains the only vital and interesting aspect of the story. Why couldn’t it have stayed with her? Some of the most interesting personal journeys we take in this world have to do with finding your place within your surroundings and whether or not your heritage has anything to do with that place. That’s the story of Rebecca and that should be the story of “Free Zone.” At the end, Rebecca has the right idea. Get out of that car and run as far away from that other story as possible.

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