Dir. Saverio Costanzo.Italy. 2004. 92mins.
Raw, gritty and uncompromising, Saverio Costanzo'saward-winning Locarno debut is a thought provoking and painfully realisticimage of living under occupation. As such, it is likely to become a favouriteon the festival circuit (it already has a berth in Toronto's Discovery sectionnext month) and a leading exponent of the Middle East tragedy as perceivedthrough European eyes. At the same time, however, it is sure to rub many peopleup the wrong way and make them squirm in their seats.
Privatelooks at how an Israeli patrol take over the home of a Palestinian family inorder to establish an observation point in the Occupied Territories. As such itis a devastatingly concise image of what civilians have to undergo in a warthat isn't even officially one, as Costanzo carefully sidesteps immediateideology and politics issues, preferring instead to deal with the agonizingaspects of life under such conditions.
Although Costanzo sincerelyattempts to be as impartial as possible, the picture's viewpoint is clearlythat of the victims and one could easily imagine a more in-depth presentationof the Israeli side. While it is not easy to watch and certainly not pleasant,it will travel precisely for these reasons and generate lots of discussions andopen-end arguments.
A small Israeli army unitbreaks into the home of a Palestinian school teacher (Bakri), who lives therewith his wife (Omari) and five children. Under the command of an edgy,high-strung officer (Miller) who barks his orders and throws his weigh aroundthreateningly, as if fearful of losing his authority, the soldiers take overthe upper floor, restrict the family to the downstairs living room, and lockthem in every night, just to be on the safe side.
A tense, high-voltage scene,showing the soldiers invading the flat, sets the mood for the rest of thepicture. It is followed by a number of incidents in which the occupiersmenacingly face the occupied but, for the most part, it shows the family tryingto handle the unbearable situation in which they find themselves.
The father insists that theypursue their normal routines as much as possible, and rejects his wife'sdesperate pleas to pack up and leave for a safer place; doing so, he argues,would only doom them to remain refugees for the rest of their and theirchildren lives.
His older daughter (Ayoub)rebels against her father's stubborn but passive resistance as she cannot bearto see him humiliated and do nothing to respond. She at least expresses heranger and frustration at every occasion; her brother, on the other hand, sayslittle, but surreptitiously prepares a deadly trap in the shed using a handgrenade - the kind of trap that could as easily blow up in the face his own kinas much as the enemy.
A transparent andunconvincing dramatic device - inan otherwise thoroughly realistic piece - sends the defiant daughter tosecretly explore the upper floor despite being forbidden to do so. Hiding in acupboard, she watches the Israelis and gradually discovers a human dimension to those she first regardedas ferocious beasts, who long to go home and fear being walking targets in theheart of enemy territory.
Inspired by the true story of a Palestinian teacher whichCostanzo stumbled on while researching for what was originally intended to be adocumentary, the picture was shot in southern Italy, both to put a certaindistance between the film and events and to prevent risk to cast and crew. Allthe leads, however, are played by Israeli and Palestinian actors, flown toItaly for the occasion and carrying with them the weight of their ownexperiences in the conflict.
Mokhammed Bakri offers asuperbly controlled portrait as the Palestinian teacher and blessed with atremendous camera presence. The rest of the cast are equally persuasive,including a heartbreaking Areen Omari as the panicked mother, Hend Ayoub as theindependent daughter and Lior Miller as stiffly arrogant Israeli officer tryingto hide his constant worries.
Long shots, taken by theintentionally unsteady, often jumpy camera of Luigi Martinucci, stress thealmost documentary nature of this unsettling tale, that while very distinctlylocated in the Middle East, strangely has a universal resonance.
Prod cos: OffSide, Istituto Luce, Cydonia
Int'l sales: Istituto Luce
Prod: Mario Ferdinando Gianani
Scr: Saverio Costanzo, CamillaCostanzo, Alessio Cremonini, Sayed Quasha
Cine: Luigi Martinucci
Ed: Francesca Galvelli
Music: Alter Ego
Main cast: Mukhammad Bakri, LiorMiller, Areen Omari, Hend Ayoub, Tomer Russo, Niv Shafir