As things in Gaza seem to worsen daily, Amos Gitai's new movie, ``Free Zone," underscores a crucial, if simple , part of the problem. Neither side is listening. His film is a road flick that crams the Israel-Palestine situation into a car. Obviously, the only place anyone really seems to drive anyone else is crazy. A former architect, Gitai has put a lot of thought into how to imply some of the conflict's complexities without directly defining the politics. Those are in the air. But, really, they should be on the ground. And so ``Free Zone" is a minor movie on a major subject, a drama with an almost unbearable lightness.
Gitai's players are women who represent the recent situation's three principal sides: Rebecca (Natalie Portman), a young American who's just broken up with her boyfriend; her Israeli livery driver, Hanna (Hanna Laslo); and, later, Leila (Hiam Abbass), the Palestinian whose boss owes Hanna money. The movie begins with Rebecca in a tight, awkward close-up, in the middle of a crying jag that goes on for several minutes.
From the front seat, Hanna tells her she has to drive from Jerusalem to Jordan on family business, and Rebecca says she wants to tag along. Reluctantly, Hanna obliges, aware that the heartbroken and dislocated American is along just for sightseeing. The tourist wants romantic vistas. Hanna, meanwhile, is out to collect several thousand dollars from her husband's business partner (they sell armored cars to the Americans who sell them to the Iraqis). His mechanic's garage has just been bombed in a terrorist attack, and, injured, he asks Hanna to carry on in his name.
When she and Rebecca reach their destination, a tax-free outpost where Arabs and Israelis make business deals , Leila, after giving Hanna the runaround, informs her that the money has gone missing. So the three of them go looking for it. Telling this story as a somewhat whimsical ladies-first parable is inspired, though not always convincing. That strategy requires either more magic or more realism.
Gitai's movies (among them 1999's ``Kadosh" and 2004's ``Promised Land" ) have tirelessly chronicled modern Israel for three decades. With its flashbacks laid over current scenes in a way that forces the past to coexist with the present, ``Free Zone" is his most impressionistic outing. It lingers between didacticism and drama. Sometimes the tutorial bears philosophical fruit. Leila, for instance, tells Hanna that it's important to learn the language of your enemy. If more Israelis spoke Arabic the way so many Palestinians have learned to speak Hebrew, things between them might improve. But the truth is Hanna has a one-track mind and proves indifferent to Leila's problems. The lady wants her money. Now.
Laslo won the best actress prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. She's corpulent, with a tremendously expressive face, and gives ``Free Zone" its spirit and emotional fortitude. She's just playing an idea, but Gitai has allowed her to act as though she were playing a fully realized person. But not even she can save the movie from its lapses into abject symbolism. The trust-building flat-tire change is fine. The three-way jam-along to a song on radio, with the American riding between the two combatants from the back seat, is not.
It's possible at that point that Gitai is trying to have some fun and, to some extent, his sense of folly is to his credit. It's a sign of hope. But it's also a joke on hope. In fact, a final bickering sequence between Hanna and Leila is so good you don't know why Gitai bothered with solemnity in the first place: It's an amusing, deceptively critical sleight of hand where the comedy speaks volumes about the current tragedy.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.