Directed and co-written by Amos Gitai, Free Zone is the first Israeli movie to be shot in Jordan, and was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. Without a doubt my interest in watching the film is for the performance of the luminous Natalie Portman at her birthplace, and one which spotted a bit of controversy and ruckus with their filming near the Wailing Wall. But what is essentially my first Israeli film, I was awed by its simplicity yet powerful underlying message within.
The film is bookended by the cumulative song Chad Gadya which grows on you with each passing minute, but yet watching Natalie Portman's Rebecca crying uncontrollably for more than 5 minutes, somehow just breaks your heart, and you start to wonder why so. We find out later that the American had broken off with her boyfriend Julio (Aki Avni) and is now sitting in a cab she boarded, without a destination to go to in a city not of her own, and begets the driver, Hanna Ben Moshe (Hana Laszlo, in an excellent performance which was to win her the Best Actress Award at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival) to take her anywhere. Hanna grudgingly agrees despite having a personal errant to run in Jordan, and brings her along for a ride.
Like a road trip, the cinematography presents the film in 2 distinct ways, one as if you're an invisible passenger on the same journey with the ladies, ever present in the passenger seat, with point of views centered from within and around the vehicle they're in. The other view, as Rebecca puts it, is that it's "amazing to see things you read in the books". We explore the scenery from Tel Aviv to Amman, in this road trip, and always for those (like me) who have yet to visit both countries, allows for a documentary styled eye-opener like a travelogue for sight and sound. Uniquely, instead of being satisfied with just showing endless roads and paths, we get compressed time with a double exposure and superimposition of the back-stories of both Rebecca and Hanna, and learn of the objective of the latter in this journey to seek someone to recover bad debts to the tune of US$30,000.
Being set in the Middle East also brings to mind the volatility of the security environment and peace agreements in place between the Israelis and Arabs. Issues such as those at the border depicted in the film reflects that clear and present tension that security personnel grapple with everyday, as did the radio announcements made over the impending and credible intelligence of threats. When crossed over to Jordan and meeting up with Leila (Hiam Abbass), we sense a deep mistrust between the characters, even though it stemmed from the root of all evil - money.
That aside, the movie did take ample time off to provide a candid observation of common folk on both sides of the border, highlighting their plight to earn a living, and the tenacity and will of villagers who rebuild their lives ordeal after ordeal. Theirs is never to give up.
But I thought the payload came from the very assured direction of Gitai, with a succinct depiction of the uneasy tripartite relationship between the Arabs, Israelis and the Americans, as represented by the respective characters in their dealings with one another. Sure they bond over cigarettes, music and a common goal in their road trip back to Israel, but under this short term peaceful existence you still cannot shake off that aged old deep rooted mistrust, as it manifested itself toward the end and really got blown way out of proportion, dragging it out. I felt it mirrored the challenges for long term peace, and that comes probably only as a result of a profound, sincere and genuine understanding of cultures cutting both ways, as Leila casually remarked starting with the learning of the Arabic and Hebrew languages. And the most interesting note would be that of Rebecca's insistence to tag along Hanna and get herself embroiled in the feud between both sides, only to find herself running away when the going gets hot, either from a lack of patience, or having absolutely no clue and surrendering from trying to seek a workable peace process for all.
Deceptively simple, with a powerful underlying message. And the wonderful performances by the ensemble team of actresses, made this all the more worthwhile to sit through. Highly recommended, with another screening of the movie on Thursday Sept 11 1900hrs at The Picturehouse!
Chad Gadya - Natalie Don't Cry!