Though Free Zone showcases three talented actors in a story with much potential and several memorable moments, the overall results are superficial. Director Amos Gitai shares with fellow filmmaker Elia Suleiman a cunning ability to see the conflicts of the war-torn region from multiple perspectives. Many of their efforts-including Gitai's Kadosh and Kippur and Suleiman's Chronicle of a Disappearance and Divine Intervention-are filled with memorable characters on different sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Both directors tell their stories in offbeat ways and often employ an appropriately tragicomic tone.
While Free Zone features some of these qualities, much of it is labored and overemphatic. Gitai's story (co-written with Marie Jose Sanselme) concerns three women from diverse backgrounds who wind up on a road trip together. Rebecca (Natalie Portman), an American living in Jerusalem, wants to leave town after breaking up with her Israeli fiancé (Aki Avni). Hanna (Hanna Laslo), an Israeli taxi driver, picks up Rebecca at the Wailing Wall and drives her to the "Free Zone," a small area in Jordan where individuals of all nationalities are able to trade and do business without fear of being "caught with the enemy." Hanna's actual reason for going to the Free Zone is to meet the Palestinian man who owes her husband money. When Hanna and Rebecca arrive, however, the man (known as "The American") has already left, but a mysterious Palestinian woman, Leila (Hiam Abbass), promises to take them to the man. While the three women bond unexpectedly, the end of the journey becomes disappointing for all of them.
The best aspect of Free Zone is the presence of the three fine actors-Portman, Laslo and Abbass. Not only do they turn their ill-defined characters into something believable, they shine individually and as an ensemble. The highlight of the film comes towards the end as the three sing together in the taxi, and thanks to the expertise of the performers, the moment doesn't seem forced or trite. For those used to seeing Portman in overblown Hollywood epics (e.g., the Star Wars series), Free Zone is a reminder that the young woman can act. (Her opening crying scene in long-take close-up lasts several minutes and represents a daring tour de force.)
Another interesting artistic touch comes early on, as Gitai superimposes images of the present-time road trip and flashbacks of the end of Rebecca's relationship with her fiancé. The photographic layering effect becomes symbolic of both Rebecca's self-discovery and the clashing of cultures.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of Gitai's tropes are far more obvious and predictable, from the expository dialogue and speechmaking to the final scene in which the three women revert to stereotypical behavior in an overly allegorical denouement. Unlike most of Gitai's other works, Free Zone never overcomes its own pretensions as political cinema. Much of the problem is with the screenplay and not the production, but most viewers will not gain anything new taking this particular journey, however colorful and likable the traveling companions.