September 7, 2017
Private – 2004, Italy
Make no mistake about it, Saverio Costanzo’s Private is a modern-day horror film. Set in what one character describes as “an Arab house in the Territory,” the film offers viewers a look at an often unreported world, one replete with unseen enemies, heightened fears, and conditions that only augment the dangerous pull toward violence that thoughts of revenge and injustice can provoke. At the center of the film is a family whose lives are upended one night when Israeli soldiers break into their home and announce that they have no intention of leaving. It is a scenario that the film suggests occurs quite often.
First things first. Private is not an anti-Israeli rant, nor is it a one-dimensional portrait of utterly peaceful characters suffering at the hands of a cruel oppressor. Instead, it is an even-handed look at actions that, despite their intentions, can only serve to inflame and increase the likelihood of sustained conflict. It is telling, therefore, that the soldiers and those sounding the loudest battle cries are all young. Theirs is the generation tasked with finding a pathway away from belligerence, yet here they are giving voice to the sentiments that can only ensure the prolongation of a conflict that has already taken far too many lives.
The central character in the film is the family patriarch, Mohammad (Mohammad Bakri), and for a while, I admit that my sentiments went against him. In the opening scenes, he seemed pig-headed, far too stubborn for someone in a situation that called for compromise and comforting. However, Mohammad has a perspective that the others lack: He takes a long-term view of things. The film begins just after the family’s first encounter with the soldiers, and the experience has clearly shaken Mohammad’s wife, Samiah (Arin Omary). The two of them have five children, and in her opinion, the best option is to pack up and flee. It is only a matter of time, she reasons, before the soldiers return and tragedy strikes. Her pleas fall of deaf ears, not just those of her husband, but also her children’s and her friends’, many of whom take the position that it is better for them to stay and fight.
From there, the film becomes a battle of wills. The children’s calls for action increase, while Mohammad’s pleas for calm grow more desperate. As all of this is going on, an eerie silence sweeps over them, and a close family begins to crack under the pressure. In one scene, most of the family is in the kitchen, yet they seem to be looking past each other, as if they have lost the hope it takes to persevere and begun to accept what they view as their eventual fate. Some have withdrawn so much that they refuse to utter a single word. In their faces, we see the toll of both the moment and the decades of friction. There is even a scene in which one of the boys becomes a suicide bomber in a dream, and when he wakes up, the look on his face is one of someone torn between two paths.
The film appears to have been shot on a hand-held camera without much in the way of lighting. In fact, at several points, the image turns almost completely black, and we are as much in the dark as the characters are. This makes the panic the characters experience all the more real. In one scene, bullets pierce the night sky and the sound of broken glass resounds all around; Mohammad and Samiah scream the names of their children, trying to be sure that all of them are accounted for. When one isn’t, the characters’ emotions are so raw and exposed that we feel what it is like to realize that there is nothing you can do to help a family member. When the child eventually emerges, the shell-shocked look on her face says it all.
Private marked the feature-length film debut of Mr. Costanzo, and had I written about it during its theatrical release back in 2004, I would have said that it marked the arrival of a truly talented director. It is not just that Costanzo handles a topic as controversial as this one with such sensitivity and poise. It is also the way he uses the camera, at times placing it outside the kitchen window, just out of earshot, as if it is eavesdropping on the family. Later, the camera is placed in a closet, from which Mohammad and Samiah’s older daughter Mariam (Hend Ayoub) peers out. The camera becomes her eyes, and we realize just how close the danger is. We also see the camera fixate on a weapon and realize just how close another one of their children is to taking an action from which there is no return and no future. I also greatly admired Costanzo’s ability to create tension and suspense during the film’s night scenes.
Private is a truly challenging film, and I imagine that there will be those on both sides of the conflict that view the film as somehow being unfair to them. I also felt that not enough time was spent developing some of the supporting characters, in particular, the Israeli soldiers. However, what I think I will take away from the film most of all is its sense of both hope and defeat. Hope because courage and dignity are on full display, and defeat because I’m not sure hope can withstand many more incidents like the one portrayed in the film. (on DVD)
3 and a half stars
*Private is in Arabic, English, and Hebrew.