Israeli director Amos Gitai’s Free Zone kicks off with a young New Yorker abroad (Natalie Portman) tagging along with her cabbie (Hanna Laslo) on a trip to Jordan. Fleeing the raw memory of her recent break-up, she doesn’t know or care about the purpose of the trip and doesn’t mind being stuck in a car for eight hours. Aimlessness and claustrophobia do not seem a therapeutic combo, much less a mood one would wish to dominate any film as it does here. Gitai tries ostentatiously to declare his own cinematic “free zone” with long takes and a desultory narrative. He counts on women-of-the-world support from Portman, Laslo, and later Hiam Abbass as the Jordanian whom the cabbie is visiting about a debt. But of all things, he suffers from an inability to commit fully to his own literal-minded political project, which he undermines again and again.
First there’s the uncanny, tone-deaf ability to cut into and out of scenes at moments that emphasize their artifice or emotional purpose. The actors must already maneuver between cabin-fever chit-chat and left-field lines of oratory (the worst being a walking exposition session by the Jordanian’s husband, to which Portman must murmur agreeably). Dips into stagy framing and lighting undercut scenes like a car-bomb memory or a torched village. One has the sense of wandering through selected shots on the set of a movie still being made.
It’s too easy to dismiss a movie that starts with an interminable, merciless take of Portman bawling, but it does seem destined to be either an audacious success or a misfire. In Free Zone Gitai’s eagerness outstrips his execution.