Monday, January 08, 2007

Free Zone: Grade A


Free Zone (2005). (In English, Hebrew & Arabic, subtitled)

Natalie Portman, Hanna Laslo, Hiam Abbass; Director=Amos Gitai.

American Natalie Portman breaks up with her boyfriend in Jerusalem and gets a cab driven by Hanna Laslo, who is actually on her way to Jordan to collect a debt owed her husband. Portman, at loose ends, agrees to go along, so it is a road trip. The tension at the border crossing is palpable, and the scenery in Jordan is fascinating and depressing at the same time. Laslo meets her contact, a Palestinian woman (Abbass), only to discover that the man with the money has disappeared. Portman finds him but the money is not recovered. The film ends with Laslo and Abbass arguing about “the debt,” but you see that they are really arguing about Israel and Palestine, even if they themselves do not realize it. As they argue, Portman, the American, jumps out of the car and runs across the border back into Israel. Beyond the sometimes heavy symbolism and speeches, one does get a real feeling for the chaos of life in that part of the world, and how people on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide try to live normally despite uncontrollable circumstance and an indelible history.

This would have been a powerful slice of life movie in itself, but in addition, there are some terrific cinematic techniques here. When Portman is remembering her time with her ex-boyfriend, that scene is superimposed on the landscape going by the cab in Jordan, which is just how it is with memory (and politics!): you don’t quite see what’s around you while you are absorbed in the past. The opening 9 minutes of the film is one long, tight head shot of Portman thinking about the breakup and coming to tears. I guess that’s a triumph of acting, but I found the scene far too long, yet I admit it is not something you see every day. All three actors give fully developed performances, especially Laslo, who I totally believed in at every instant.

The movie was a little unsatisfying in being “only” a slice of life portrayal, with no real story. I want a movie to have a beginning, middle, and end, and I want it to have a point: something achieved, defined, saved, lost, learned, etc. But upon reflection, I realized that with this movie I was on the receiving end of cultural globalization, a rare experience for an American. There are different kinds of movie and other ways of telling a story.

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