Three women — an American, an Israeli and a Palestinian — become temporary traveling companions in a remote area of Jordan in “Free Zone,” Amos Gitai’s most satisfying pic since war drama “Kippur” (2000). Schematic set-up is given a human face by fine performances and a physical journey that’s often more interesting than the characters’ emotional ones, which are weakened by the Israeli auteur’s tendency toward convenient doctrinaire-ism and chunks of expository dialogue. Casting of Natalie Portman, in her first movie in the region of her birth, should give this a higher profile on the specialist circuit than Gitai’s prior, less mellow pics.
Though she essentially becomes an observer to the drama as the movie progresses, Portman is right up front and center in the opening reels, starting with a 10-minute uninterrupted closeup of her sitting in a car, gently weeping, as a traditional, rondo-like Passover song plays on the soundtrack. From various visual and sonic clues, it becomes clear that the car is parked near Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, Portman’s character, Rebecca, is of mixed American-Jewish origins — she occasionally speaks an odd word of Hebrew — and she’s in the midst of some claustrophobic trauma.
Her driver, at first only heard off-screen, is Hanna (Israeli entertainer Hanna Laslo), a feisty middle-aged woman who says she has an important business meeting across the border in Jordan. Rebecca is only too happy to accompany her, to leave behind some bad memory as yet unexplained.
Border-crossing scenes rather obviously sketch Arab-Israeli differences as first the women are aggressively interrogated by Jewish security forces before being smilingly waved by on the Jordanian side. As the car drives through the wintry landscape, the background to Rebecca’s grief — her breakup with her Spanish-Israeli fiance, Julio (Aki Avni) — is shown in superimposed scenes.
While serving as a soldier, Julio was apparently involved in some anti-Palestinian atrocity, according to the first of several didactic lumps of dialogue which pepper the pic and markedly contrast with the more natural dialogue between the women as the story unfolds.
Hanna heads toward an area in northeast Jordan, bordered by Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, known as the Free Zone, a customs and tax-free region where all nationalities of people mingle to buy and sell cars. In a flashback devoted to Hanna, it emerges that her husband, Moshe (Uri Klauzner), who sells armored cars to Iraqis, has been wounded in an explosion, and she’s going in his place to collect a $30,000 debt owed by his business partner, known only as “The American.”
As the car trundles through Jarash and Amman, and then across bleak desert landscape, pic initially looks like it is becoming a road movie in which the Free Zone (which actually exists) is used as a metaphor for Mid-Eastern practicality, free of politics, religion and borders.
In fact, the area — a large car dump that’s only briefly seen — doesn’t function as the end of the women’s journey, which diverges in several interesting, but sometimes dramatically clunky, ways to a rather too trite ending.
Film really starts to become involving at a human level — and Rebecca is sidelined to observer status — when Hanna meets Leila (Palestinian thesp Hiam Abbass, from “The Syrian Bride”), who proves evasive over where “The American” and his money really are. In the first of several sparky scenes between the two actresses, Hanna and Leila flatter, cajole and play along with each other, providing the one real relationship in the movie that manages to translate the movie’s weighty subtexts into real cinema.
As far as the script allows her, Portman acquits herself at an OK level as an American conflicted by her mixed ethnicity. Among supporting players, veteran Arab-Christian actor Makram Khoury is solid as ever, though at one point his character too is lumbered with a long, speech better suited to the classroom than a human drama. Spanish thesp Carmen Maura, almost unrecognizable, appears briefly in a flowery turn as Julio’s mom, in flashback.
Deliberately untouristy look of the film, with well-known spots like the Wailing Wall and Roman Jarash hardly glimpsed, is enhanced by Laurent Brunet’s functional, everyday lensing. In many respects, the physical journey is the freshest aspect of “Free Zone” — pic is the first Israeli production shot in co-operation with the Jordanian Royal Film Commission — taking the average viewer into rarely seen areas that the script only partly manages to dramatize satisfyingly.