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Groups of women confront the unjust systems constructed by men in both Water and Free Zone, films directed by an Indo-Canadian woman and an Israeli man, respectively. Though the movies are similarly didactic, they employ different narrative modes: While the women in Water eventually blossom from symbols into characters, the ones in Free Zone just become more and more metaphorical as the story unfolds.

After an opening title that presents ancient Hindu teachings on the proper behavior of wives and widows, Water introduces an unlikely example of the latter: chubby-faced Chuyia (Sarala), who’s only 8 but has been married to a man she doesn’t know. Informed by her father that she’s now a widow, Chuyia asks a reasonable question: “For how long, Papa?” The unspoken answer is “forever”—or at least until the Raj or reformers led by Gandhi can change the law and, more important, the customs that hold widows to be impure. It’s 1938, and change seems to be in the air—but not at the shabby ashram where Chuyia’s family discards her. Ruled by fat, foul-tempered Madhumati (Manorma), it’s a place where close-cropped widows of all ages simply wait to die.

Chuyia soon meets the one exception, lovely Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who’s allowed to keep her hair long and live apart from the others. Forced to prostitute herself to support the other women, Kalyani is ferried nightly to the mansions on the other side of the river by Madhumati’s broker, the eunuch Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav). Chuyia and the innocent-despite-it-all Kalyani become allies and are soon befriended by Narayan (John Abraham), a handsome young man from a wealthy Brahmin family who prefers Gandhi’s message of equality to his father’s life of idle privilege. Entranced by Kalyani, Narayan proposes marriage, which scandalizes both the residents of the ashram and his own family. As Kalyani and Narayan’s relationship plays out—not auspiciously, of course—another widow, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas, star of the controversial Bandit Queen), takes it upon herself to rescue Chuyia. The youngest widow’s ultimate fate is not revealed, but she might be the only person in the ashram to escape the prison of Indian widowhood.

Water is the third in writer-director Deepa Mehta’s Elemental Trilogy, following 1996’s Fire and 1998’s Earth. All have women at their centers. And all mix elements of tragedy, melodrama, and the Indian musical. As if to temper her criticism of Indian society, the director periodically interrupts the action for enchanted moments, including a celebration of the Hindu festival of Holi, in which even dictatorial Madhumati temporarily finds her inner child. In another digression, Kalyani and Chuyia go dancing in the rain while someone off-camera does the singing. The playful asides, lush cinematography (by longtime Mehta collaborator Giles Nuttgens), and, especially, Ray’s glamorous presence all brighten the film’s dark story a little too effectively: When Madhumati reacts angrily to Kalyani’s engagement, hacking off her hair in a scene that’s supposed to be disturbingly violent, the new cut just makes Ray look more like the sleek fashion model she used to be.

Of the trilogy’s three films, Earth is the richest, perhaps because it’s the only one Mehta didn’t write from scratch. (It’s also the only one that emphasizes India’s religious diversity, with significant Parsi and Muslim characters as well as Hindus.) Water is more akin to Fire, which also attempted to balance crowd-pleasing musical numbers and comic bits against provocations aimed at the more hidebound Hindu. Although so controversial in India that it still lacks a distributor there, to American audiences, the film offers an entirely innocuous agit-prop thrill. Kalyani seems fundamentally untroubled by her sexual subjugation, Narayan is blandly noble, and every piercing development is quickly disinfected by a pleasant song or picturesque image. Celebrating women who reject a system that seems beyond Western understanding, Water is too smitten with local color to render its widows’ plight as universal.

Whereas Water opens with a bustle of unexplained activity, Free Zone begins with a fixed nine-minute take—and an instantly understandable mood. Sitting in the back of a car while a Passover standard recounts a cycle of death, a young woman cries. And cries. And cries.

Ostensibly, the tears are personal. An American whose father emigrated from Israel, Rebecca has just broken up with her Israeli fiancé. She’s now all alone in Jerusalem save for Hanna, the tour guide who’s at the wheel and eager to rid herself of the blubbering tourist. But Rebecca is also crying for the entire blood-spattered area, so she can hardly be excluded from the next few hours of Hanna’s life. Besides, Rebecca is played by Natalie Portman, the first Hollywood star ever to appear in a film by Israeli director Amos Gitai, so you know she’s taking the whole ride.

“I have to get out of this country,” laments Rebecca, who has just discovered a dark incident in her fiancé’s past. Conveniently, that’s just what Hanna (Hanna Laslo) has in mind. She has to cross the border into Jordan and travel to the “free zone” at the junction of Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia—a ready-made symbol of the scarcity of interconnection among the region’s locked-down countries. Normally, Hanna’s husband, Moshe, who adds armored plates to used cars that are then sold in Iraq, makes the trip across the frontier to collect the proceeds from the man who sells the vehicles, who’s known as “the American.” But Moshe (Uri Klauzner) was recently injured in an unexplained explosion, so Hanna must substitute for him.

As Rebecca and Hanna travel toward the zone, a series of flashbacks explain what transpired between Rebecca, her fiancé, and his mother (who, to add another level of internationalism, lives in Spain and speaks little English or Hebrew). These are presented as double exposures, as if the recent past is something that might reflect in the windows of a car moving through an ancient land. After a few wrong turns and troublesome border inspections, Rebecca and Hanna arrive at their destination. But the American isn’t there. Instead, they encounter his Palestinian-born wife, Leila (Hiam Abbass, seen last year in Paradise Now and Munich). And so it’s an American, an Israeli, and a Palestinian who continue the journey.

This isn’t the setup for a joke, even if Free Zone is so programmatic that it’s hard to take it entirely seriously, at least as drama. Gitai, whose Kadosh depicted the oppression of ultra-Orthodox Israeli women with more ferocity than anything in Mehta’s chronicles of Indian patriarchy, is proposing that women can find pragmatic openings where men see only ideological barriers. Yet despite a contrived scene in which all three women groove to a reggaefied tune, Gitai and co-writer Marie José Sanselme’s script isn’t all female bonding: Hanna and Leila bicker frequently, while Rebecca is on board primarily to be a witness. Near the end, she listens to a pocket history of the Palestinian experience in which Americans, Israelis, and fellow Arabs all betray the refugees. And Rebecca’s final gesture is pure allegory—although it’s unclear what else she, or the nation she represents, is supposed to do.

The opening scene serves a stand-alone example of Gitai’s nerve—and Portman’s crying ability—but it also exemplifies the movie’s style: a cunning mix of documentary-style filmmaking and minimalist theatricality. A nighttime sequence in a Palestinian-refugee village lit by arson fires has the immediacy of live news footage, but its dark skies, dancing flames, and silhouetted camels, all impeccably shot by cinematographer Laurent Brunet, suggest the climax to an opera. Despite committed performances from its three central performers, the movie never convinces as the story of three actual women. But as an odd combination of Israeli and Palestinian testimonies and border-zone sound-and-light show, Free Zone is altogether compelling.CP