When he’s at his best, Israeli auteur Amos Gitai captures the peculiar pain, and paradox, of individuals filled with national yearning. What a person needs from a country and what a country needs from a person should not on its face have reason to overlap, and Gitai is obsessed with why — and what happens when — people assume the two elements should.
The task seems to call particularly for an Israeli. Any society that’s at once both unyieldingly pragmatic and utopian is going to be built on some pretty significant contradictions, and Gitai attacks them in all his films (which include “Kadosh”  and the great birth-of-the-state drama “Kedma” ), cutting a little closer each time to the national soul. A psychologist might label his concerns a kind of moral collateral damage. But for Gitai it is simply the essence of drama: the endless, fruitless struggle to establish the acceptable price of ideals.
In his latest film, last year’s “Free Zone,” the director relates a parable of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by using the jolting convention of a road movie. “Free Zone” also relies on an ancient Hollywood gimmick, explored in the “Godfather” series and in a million thrillers: how the desire to get away can only dig us in further. It’s hardly a new lesson, but Gitai argues that it’s one especially suited to Middle Eastern politics, where a person’s escape vehicle — literally, in this case — can quickly become her prison.
Rebecca (Natalie Portman), an American émigré to Israel, has left her ex-fiancé after he disappointed her both personally and politically. When we first glimpse her in the back of a Jerusalem cab, she’s unraveling before our eyes: her face in tight close-up — first stoic, then mournful, then quavering, tearful and, finally, crumpled. Looking ready to implode as she watches the holy madness around her, she commands her driver, who’s unseen and almost God-like in the scene, to simply get her out of there.
After some hesitation, the driver, Hanna (Hana Laszlo), agrees. “I am going to take you to a long journey,” she warns. From here, one expects a series of startling adventures, but Gitai takes delight in ensuring that these experiences never come. The trip, through Israel, Jordan and the so-called “free zone” (in the more obvious of the two entendres, a no-man’s land between Jordan and Iraq), has the pair meeting an assortment of Arabs and exchanging, with the Arabs and with each other, disjointed musings about politics and about their lives.
As the women travel, nominally in search of a business contact, the voyage turns into an existential joke: The more we try for meaning, the less we find it. Like Franz Kafka’s “The Castle,” it’s a feverish journey to nowhere. Not only is the purpose not achieved, but also, in a sense, it never existed in the first place.
And just when peace and understanding seem imminent, conflict descends again, particularly in the pointed, car-bound final scene.
For all its cynicism, Gitai’s point is subtler than you’d expect; it is not the inevitability of conflict he argues for so much as the crushing effect of the people who believe in the inevitability of conflict.
But this thoughtful message is delivered with the wrong tools. Rebecca and Hanna’s stories are told in dissolves that show their storytelling faces over their driving ones, and the scene feels impressionist at exactly the moment we need explanation. The layers pile up too quickly; we are on a symbolic road trip, flashing back to a symbolic story, in a bid to understand a very real conflict.
Portman, offering her usual glorious vulnerability, is well cast in a role she’s basically owned, from her original turn in “Beautiful Girls” to the current “V for Vendetta” — a free spirit conflicted by conscience. And Laszlo is funnier than you’d expect as a particular kind of middle-aged Israeli who alternates between “Gott in Himmel!” exasperation and bullheaded negotiation.
Without too much fanfare or blood, the movie manages to keep the stakes high. It’s the anti-“Munich,” a movie deeply about the cost of terrorism that rarely relies on the actual thing. (It is also far more nuanced in its understanding of the minutiae of Israeli life, from the barking confusion at a border crossing to Hanna’s no-nonsense attitude.)
But the story remains too elliptic, and the character’s preoccupations too specific, to have the instructional power Gitai wants. For so resonant a topic, “Free Zone” fills the screen with too much of the conflict’s texture and not enough of its substance. In the haunting rendition of “Had Gadya” that plays during the opening and closing — one more nod to cycles and inevitability — Gitai uses a version with modified lyrics to tell a cautionary tale about how violence changes us. “I was a dove” the song goes, “now I’m a wild wolf.” Maybe so, but what does such a dramatic transformation mean? Gitai shows us the jungle, but he never takes us inside.
Steven Zeitchik is a staff reporter at Variety.