Political realities are a powerful bonus to, rather than the only reason for, “Private,” an emotionally gripping drama about a family whose house in an occupied zone is commandeered by soldiers. The family happens to be Palestinian and the military Israeli, but this first feature by Italo documaker Saverio Costanzo could be set in any war zone where force of arms becomes rule of law and an unbridgeable gap exists between occupied and occupier. Unanimous winner of Locarno competition’s top prize, the Golden Leopard, looks set for further fest billeting, though pic’s noticeably DV origins will limit wider incursions.
Stern, middle-aged paterfamilias Mohammad (Mohammad Bakri) and his younger wife Samia (Areen Omari) scream at each other in opening scene shot, like the whole movie, with handheld cameras in grungy, vid-sourced colors. By inference from the dialogue and exterior shots of the isolated house, it’s clear they’re a Palestinian family in an Israeli-occupied, rural zone; however, in line with the film’s semi-allegorical approach, there’s never any clue as to the exact time or location.
Samia wants to move with their five children to a safer place; Mohammad, a teacher, says this is their home and they will remain come what may. “Being a refugee is not being,” he states. The pull between these two arguments — Samia’s emotional one, Mohammad’s rational one — informs the whole picture.
In a powerful sequence of raw hysteria, a small group of Israeli soldiers, led by the single-minded Ofer (Lior Miller), bursts into the house one night. The family is ordered to remain on the ground floor, with its living room and kitchen, while the soldiers occupy the upper floor, which the Palestinians are forbidden to enter at any time.
Thus begins a rondo-like drama in which Mohammad, caught between the knee-jerk racism of the ruthless, paranoid Ofer and of his own family — especially Samia, eldest daughter Mariam (Hend Ayoub) and eldest son Jamal (Marco Alsaying) — tries to keep a lid on the increasingly volatile shotgun marriage under his roof. Pic’s initially alienating, unattractive look becomes less distracting as the human element ripens.
Aside from the politics, film works well as a realistic semi-thriller, with the emotionally hair-trigger Ofer instilling almost as much fear in his own men as in the Palestinians, and both Mariam and Jamal threatening the uneasy calm with small, rebellious acts. Mariam’s eavesdropping on the Israeli soldiers from an upstairs cupboard is a pure script convenience to humanize the occupiers, but it also works well in cinematic terms, with several tense moments when she’s about to be discovered.
More’s the pity pic blows much of its credibility in the final minutes with an English-lingo pacifist song (by Roger Waters), boomed out on the soundtrack, that’s banally didactic. Its removal would do the film a major service, especially for Anglophone auds.
Casting is tip-top, with well-known thesps Bakri, who copped the Locarno best actor prize, and Miller completely believable as the Palestinian father and Israeli officer, and other pro actors from the region filling smaller roles. Originally planned to be shot in Israel, pic ended up being entirely (and convicingly) shot in Cabala, southern Italy, for reasons of cast security.