Private Hell

Hot on the heels of recent releases that humanize Palestinian terrorists (The War Withinand Paradise Now) comes Italian documentary director Saverio Costanzo’s foray into drama, Private, which throws a seemingly typical Palestinian family into an Israeli occupation nightmare. Just in time for Christmas, discerning American moviegoers can discover that Palestinians are people too—at least until later this month, when Steven Spielberg’s ’72 Olympics massacre pic Munich comes out.

In Private, which is based on true events, a four-member Israeli army detail decides a Palestinian family’s home serves its immediate strategic interests in ever-shifting street flare-ups. But, against the wishes of the Israeli fighters and his own family, the father, Mohammad B. (Mohammad Bakri), decides they will stay put. “Good,” lies the detail’s no-nonsense commander (Lior Miller), who goes about dividing the modest home like the country surrounding them: the entire upstairs is solely Israeli, one room downstairs is for all seven Palestinians, and the kitchen and living room are common areas—but only in daylight. At night, the family is locked in the room and the door will not be unlocked until morning. What if a child needs to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night? Too bad. Deal.

A well-educated man who, unlike most Muslims in film, believes his faith calls for nonviolence in the face of conflict, Mohammad thinks his five children would never forgive him if they simply left and became “refugees.” But the stifling living arrangement—not very private at all—quickly takes its toll on the rest of the family. Dejection fills the face, voice and body language of Mohammad’s wife, Samiah (Areen Omari), who fears for her children’s safety as her home becomes both a prison and a prime target. You can see the permanent life scars forming on the youngest children with each harrowing incident, while the experience radicalizes the oldest daughter (Hend Ayoub), who was halfway there already, and son (Karem Emad Hassan Aly), who goes from political obliviousness to flirtations with martyrdom in mere days.

But, amazingly, this is not an overtly violent film. Shot much like you’d expect from a documentary filmmaker (handheld cameras, existing light, if any at all), Private uses the sound of gunshots in complete darkness to more chilling effect than if we were to see bloodshed. Hatred is illustrated not with senseless mayhem but with the everyday glances and dismissive tones of people born to be sworn enemies.

Some have criticized Private for presenting too much of a “balanced” view of both sides. In other words, the Israeli soldiers are not monsters, and the Muslims do not die for Allah. But I would argue that films like this make it easier for western viewers to wrap their heads around this whole bloody mess. Seldom does it feel as if there is any air in the claustrophobic home onscreen or the area immediately surrounding your theater seat. A concluding twist worthy of O. Henry illustrates the hopelessness of it all.

In its infinite stupidity, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently rejected Private as Italy’s official submission for Oscar foreign-film consideration because no Italian is spoken onscreen (Hebrew, Arabic and English are). While it’s debatable that this is the year’s best foreign film, it is one everyone should see. The world needs to know that Muslims with views like Mohammad’s do exist and that what we all share is the same desire to be left alone within our own four walls.



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