Frustration, annoyance, boredom, claustrophobia, moments of terror, even a little girl's urgent need to pee—these become the audience-discomfiting means of art in this made-in-Italy drama set in the Palestinian occupied territories. It is a film designed to make you uncomfortable, not by using images of bombs or blood or the usual tropes of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, director Saverio Costanzo keeps reducing what we can see, almost like The Blair Witch Project, depicting the limits placed on an ordinary Palestinian family whose house is suddenly seized as a military observation post. As they lose their freedom, subject to a series of humiliations large and small, so shall we.
Patriarch Mohammad (Mohammad Bakri) is evidently an academic, daily nagging his five kids to study hard and do their homework. He peppers his speech with English to encourage theirs. (No one speaks Hebrew, which furthers the mutual incomprehension and resentment when the soldiers later arrive.) Wife Samia (Areen Omari) is obviously growing tired of her husband's attachment to their large home, the exact location of which is never specified. It's enough to know that it's in the wrong place for her, at least a couple of her kids (who'd rather be watching TV than bullets), and the Israelis. But Mohammad won't budge: "Being a refugee means not to be," he declares, supplying his own Hamlet punctuation.
Like Blair Witch, the DV and mostly handheld Private can be sandpaper on the eyes; it's terribly grainy, much of it shot at night. When the troops storm in, pointing weapons at kids, the fright is doubled because nobody can see anything properly— is that child holding a gun or a toy? Commanding officer Ofer (Lior Miller) makes everything worse by declaring the second story of Mohammad's house off-limits, then locking the family in one room to sleep each night. He's an insufferable and possibly unstable martinet, and we have no reason to like his squad, either. Then oldest daughter Mariam (Hend Ayoub) starts sneaking upstairs to spy on them, perhaps putting her entire family at risk of reprisal.
Because Mohammad is proud and Ofer inflexible, you spend most of the movie fearing the worst. (The Roger Waters song over the final credits is actually the biggest atrocity.) Yet director Costanzo keeps confounding expectations. The Israelis are humanized, slightly, and Mohammad sometimes looks like a dictator himself. Private is a better film than last year's Oscar-nominated Paradise Now because it gets at causes and legitimate grievances. It shows real complaints, not false solutions. Mohammad keeps his dignity by enduring what no homeowner should have to endure (and such military takeovers surely continue in the West Bank today and Iraq). He's too smart to fall for the easy, self-defeating definition of "resistance" espoused by Paradise's two slacker suicide bombers. And Private's too good a movie to posit that his endurance, like Mandela or Gandhi, will simply shame the intruders into leaving. The film provides no context, no outside world, no motives for the soldiers (or their targets), and it doesn't have to. It's a stern picture, like its hero, that effectively says: You don't like this situation? Well, go study harder, do your homework, and maybe you can change it.