Note: This review was once part of an earlier post. I've seperated the two writeups in order to make both easier to read.
Natalie Portman really is too good-looking for words; as if to try to both raise that issue and solve it straight from the beginning, Amos Gitai opens Free Zone on a ten-minute close-up of the actress' face. Had he tried to frame her head on, it would have been overkill; nor would it have worked had the scene required her to really say anything, because as soon as that squaky voice comes out, it's all over. Instead, Gitai films her from the side, her profile taking up just one third of the screen, the rain-streaked taxi window she looks out of filling the rest of the space. The only action that takes place on screen, for a ten full minutes, takes place on Natalie Portman's face, as it produces tears and absorbs them, recovers a bit and then starts again.
At the end of the scene, she asks the unseen driver of the cab to take her to Jordan. When asked what she'll do there, Portman responds that she isn't sure, she just needs "to leave this awful country." Because we've already figured out that Portman's Rebecca, with her pidgeon Hebrew, is American, and that by "this awful country", she means Israel, one immediately assumes the worst about the cause of her tears. This is the first of many points in which Gitai plays on political paranoia to draw urgency to what turns out to be a personal predicament. We learn the truth about Rebecca's tears in a series of long, slow, double and triple exposure flashbacks - more longshots of Natalie, this time straight-on but diluted by freeway - a beautiful sequence that manages to telegraph memory whilst moving the plot along almost imperceptibly.
Rebecca, a well-educated and well-meaning but ultimately naive student, ends up tagging along with Hanna (Hanna Laszlo, who won an acting prize at Cannes for the role), a middle-aged Israeli wife and mother, who is travelling to the Free Zone between Saudi Arabia and Iraq in order to pick up $30,000 owed to her husband by a man known only as The American. When Hanna explains that the Free Zone is a commercial area used for the buying and selling of cars, Rebecca responds, "Used cars? I was hoping for something a little more romantic. I was thinking camels, and hookahs, and sand dunes." Gotcha again. The best part about watching Free Zone is imagining the filmmaker's glee over leading his audience astray – at every such turn, there might as well be an intertitle that reads, "What? You thought it, not me."
Hanna and Rebecca eventually hookup with a Palestinian woman named Leila (Hiam Abbas), and with Portman sitting in the middle as they drive across the border, the trifecta form a non-too-subtle model of US/Middle East relations. Still, according to Abbas, who participated for a brief and frustrating Q& A after the film, Gitai doesn't have "any pretension of delivering a message." But when asked what she takes away from the film, she pointed to an idea embodied by its final shot: "Leave us alone and we'll get along with each other."
Poor Abbas – as the sole representative of the film at Saturday night's screening, she was left to the unenviable task of answering a pile of "I don't get it" queries from an audience seemingly uncomfortable with the film's willfully obtuse nature. Though obviously frustrated at times, Abbas handled it quite well, patiently confirming that yes, the Free Zone is a real place; yes, The Six Days war did actually occur; yes, she is actually Palestinean, although she now lives in Paris. She lost her cool just a little bit – and rightfully so – when someone asked if she had been in other films; she gave the asker a cool stare and informed him that she just worked with Steven Spielberg on Munich.