A Humanistic Film By Henry Sheehan
The FIPRESCI jury at the 48th San Francisco International Film Festival awarded its prize to Private, a film by an Italian filmmaker, Sergio Costanzo, shot in Calabria, but set in the Mideast. With a drama uncoiling amidst the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it avoids the pitfall of subjecting character to political generalities while still maintaining a specific political point of view. Costanzo is making his feature debut and the presence of some stylistic excesses in the opening scenes may make a viewer wary of overstatements to come. Happily the young director soon gets his technique under control while still sustaining the excited anxiety it evokes.
Private’s story is centered around a middle-class Palestinian family living in the Occupied Territories in a comfortable two-story house. The head of the household is Muhammad, a strict but classically liberal teacher or professor. Aside from his homemaker wife, Samia, the family consists of two little children, teenaged sons Jamal and Yousef, and the oldest, daughter Miriam. While the rest of the family tends to bend to father’s will, Miriam is steadfastly refusing his command to take up her acceptance at a German medical school. She’d rather stay close at home to resist the occupation.
She seems to get a good chance when, one night, an Israeli Army platoon breaks into her home and seizes it as a sort of mini-base. From now on, the aggressive officer in charge tells the family, they are restricted to the ground floor on pain of punishment. At night, they are to be locked up in the living room and not let out till morning.
This is where Costanzo’s technique takes on some meaning. His movie is shot entirely with hand-held digital video cameras and, early on, he seems to be in thrall to the light weight and long-take possibilities. During a simple conversation between Samia and a neighbor, whip pans lead one to wonder whether the camera operator strained his neck. But the technique pays big dividends when Costanzo shoots the midnight entry of the soldiers. The excited camera, twirling about in almost total darkness, tidily encapsulates subjective fear and objective frenzy. For less confrontational scenes – though confrontation of one kind or another insinuates every corner of the film – Costanzo eventually chooses less feverish approaches.
More profoundly, the dynamic camera style reflects the dynamism of the characters’ relations and attitudes. The deepest internal conflict occurs within Miriam, the only one of the family who dares to sneak upstairs to the soldiers’ lair. Hiding in an armoire, she (and, of course, the camera) spies on the Israelis as their interact with one another. In the process, they become undeniably human to her, even to the point of sharing fear.
Miriam’s internal deliberations are mirrored in nearly every other major character, even one of the smallest children. Not all come to the same conclusion as Miriam, but mute reflection leads each to an individual resolve. The only one not to change is Muhammad, who comes off as something of a hero. An enemy of all political violence, but determined to hold on to his family home, he is a man of both stubborn peace and peaceful stubbornness. Through his presence, Private enters the canon of those humanistic films most popularly, though not exclusively, represented by Neo-Realism.