Amos Gitaï's Free Zone got a lot of attention at Cannes last year for its opening 10-minute close-up of Natalie Portman crying in the back of a taxi. Of course, no one should cry on camera that long unless they're singing "Nothing Compares 2 U," but besides that, the shot exemplifies Free Zone's biggest problem. It isn't about what it promises to be about. Portman is really just a passenger in the movie, and though Gitaï fills in the details of why her character is crying—a guilt-wracked Spanish-Israeli soldier has just jilted her—her story is essentially over before the picture begins. Instead, Free Zone gets hijacked by the driver, Hanna Laslo, who begs Portman's indulgence as she veers into Jordan to pick up some money on behalf of her munitions-building husband. When her husband's partner doesn't show, Laslo relies on a Palestinian agent, Hiam Abbass, to get her to "the American." Together, the three women roll into the disputed lands at the nexus of Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, where people operate under the principles of commerce, not politics.
Like a lot of Gitaï's films, Free Zone is part history, part allegory, and part art. Both the history and art hold their fascinations. Much of the movie is spent with the camera pointed out of a moving car, recording the whited-out landscapes and clustered settlements of the modern Middle East. And while Portman gawks at "the things you only read about in books," Gitaï flashes back to her and Laslo's backstories, relayed in superimposed images that look like reflections in a car window.
But Gitaï has no real interest in who these women are beyond their symbolic resonance as an Israeli and a Palestinian looking for an American to help clear a debt, while another American—her heart broken by a European—watches. So he doesn't bother to give them anything to say. The dialogue in Free Zone tends to be either functional or mundane, and in either case, it's often mumbled. Gitaï first gained prominence as a documentarian, and maybe that's the direction he should've gone with this film: a deeper look at a specific region where borders and nationalities don't matter. But then it wouldn't be as easy for Gitaï to impose his will on the material, and make it mean what he forces it to mean.