Here’s a puzzle for Amos Gitai, currently feted with “Hard Questions,” a Lincoln Center retrospective: Why is your new film so tedious?
It was with great hopes that I went to a screening of the Israeli director’s latest project, Free Zone, about three women—an Israeli, an American, and a Palestinian—wrestling over a business deal. One of its stars, Hanna Laslo, picked up the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her somewhat gruff, can-do performance as a questionably Orthodox matron, the best of the lot. Another is Natalie Portman. That alone guarantees fanfare, and yet star power cannot eradicate the carsick feeling that this film induces.
It is a road movie, after all. There are long tracking shots of highways, most of the action takes place in a taxi, the interactions center around the sales of armored vehicles, and, toward the end, Gitai gives us the trio twirling their wrists and bobbing their heads to a song on the radio in a kind of vehicular camaraderie.
Unless you count a close shot of Portman’s Rebecca crying through Chava Alberstein’s politicized rendition of Had Gadya, nothing much else happens though much is aspired to. That’s the key problem here, admirable though it may be.
Characters offer mini-monologues on their personal tragedies. The Palestinian, played by Hiam Abbass, was dispossessed from Israel and admonishes that it’s good to know the language of the enemy. The Israeli snarks, “Before? Before, my parents came from Auschwitz,” in response to a question of where her parents were located before immigrating. And the American sweetheart seems bathed in a kind of milky mixture of curiosity and dislocation; her mother is not a Jew and she consequently feels rejected by the place she had hoped to consider home.
The lesson—persecution is owned by no one and everyone—is important and quite dear to Gitai, who has built his career examining regional tensions. He started in 1982 with Field Diary, a documentary of his tour through the country, interviewing Israelis and Palestinians about their future, and followed it up three years later with Esther, his first feature. Gitai’s version of the Biblical tale wraps up with shots of the actors silently walking, each narrating their own biographies. A Palestinian plays Mordechai, a Hungarian refugee plays an advisor to King Ahasuerus, portrayed in turn by an actor of Armenian descent. The moving revelation that it’s a colors-of-the-world production compensates but only slightly for enduring the rest of the film.
Certainly, the world can be a cruel place—the Bible shows us that, and lest you need modern evidence, pick up a newspaper. Free Zone is similarly discouraging, and viewers will surely be affirmed in their lamentation over the seeming intractability of the tensions and suffering in the Middle East. After the screening, Gitai said a few words, notably that his hope for the region is that warring people will become so bored by quarreling that they’ll ultimately make peace. Attrition may indeed be a solution, but Gitai’s lack of imagination and well-meaning moralizing do little more than elicit a collective yawn.