Free Zone

From Oct ’05 Spotlight: The Chicago International Film Festival begins Thursday, Oct. 6 and ends Thursday, Oct. 20. Just like last year, all films will show either at the Landmark Century Center Theatre on North Clark Street or at the AMC River East 21 on East Illinois Street. This year’s schedule contains over 100 films, and at least four of them will be of specific interest to Jewish audiences: “Bee Season,” “Fateless,” “Free Zone,” and “Protocols of Zion.”

The most controversial of the four is undoubtedly “Free Zone.” Forget everything you might have heard about the tzuris unleashed when actress Natalie Portman was seen kissing co-star Aki Avni at the Western Wall; “Free Zone” is a very serious film, both well made and exceptionally thought-provoking.

“Free Zone” begins with a tight close-up on the tear-stained face of the beautiful Portman, and the camera remains there, for minutes that feel like hours. As “Rebecca,” Portman’s character, cries, audience attention turns to the haunting music on the soundtrack, which sounds vaguely familiar but weirdly dissonant. It takes a while to realize the voice belongs to Chava Alberstein and she’s singing her version of “Chad Gadya,” originally recorded in 1989 during the first intifada: “All the nights [of Passover] I asked only four questions. This night I have another question: when will the circle of terror end?”

When the camera finally pulls back, we see that Rebecca is in the back seat of a tour van. Her driver is “Hanna,” played by Hana Laszlo (who won an acting award for this role at last May’s Cannes Film Festival). Hanna has a mysterious errand to run and since Rebecca has nowhere else to go, Hanna reluctantly takes her along. It turns out they’re bound for an economic “free zone” at the border between Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. When they finally arrive there, they meet “Leila” (wonderfully played by Hiam Abbass).

What makes “Free Zone” so special is director Amos Gitai’s ability to explore the personal and the political in the same frame. All three of these very fine actresses play intriguing characters while simultaneously embodying archetypes. For a time it seems the American, the Israeli, and the Palestinian will find a way to accommodate one another, but in the end Chava Alberstein’s voice returns to drown out their final argument: “Today I don’t know who I am.”

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