Producers hint disqualification due to pro-Palestinian slant, Academy says it's over language.
By TOM TUGEND
Even the annual Oscar competition can't stay clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This year, the brouhaha is about Private, a film centering on a Palestinian West Bank family, whose home is temporarily taken over by a squad of Israeli soldiers.
Private is the work of Italian director Saverio Costanzo, shot by an Italian crew, and was selected as Italy's official entry in the Foreign Language Film Oscar category.
It was promptly rejected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and sciences, which accepted entries from 57 other countries, including Israel and "Palestine."
The rejection, a news release from the Italian producers hints darkly, was due to the favorable treatment of the film's Palestinian family.
Not so, said Academy spokeswoman Teni Melidonian. The languages spoken in Private are Arabic, Hebrew and English, but there isn't a word of Italian.
"Our rules state clearly that an entry must be predominantly in the language of the country submitting the film" said Melidonian.
Italy quickly substituted another film titled "La Bestia Nel Cuore" ("Don't Tell" in English), but the controversy shouldn't overshadow this intriguing movie, with some persuasive acting by a mixed Arab and Israeli cast.
Mohammad, his wife Samia and their five children live in an isolated two-story house, halfway between a Palestinian village and an Israeli settlement. Suddenly one night (the film was shot in late 2003 with the intifada in full force), a squad of Israeli soldiers burst into the house to secure it as a lookout post facing Palestinian snipers.
At first, the family is ordered to evacuate the house, but Mohammad stands fast and refuses to leave. The Israelis agree to a compromise, unthinkable in any other war, of allowing the family to stay in the downstairs living room and kitchen, while the soldiers take over the upstairs bedrooms.
Ofer, the leader of the squad, lays down one condition. On pain of severe punishment, none of the family members can go upstairs, and at night the door to the living room is locked from the outside.
Under the jampacked living conditions, the family's nerves and tempers quickly fray. The wife want to leave for the children's safety. The older teenagers, fed steady TV images of heroic Palestinian martyrs, urge direct resistance.
But Mohammad, a teacher and Shakespeare fan, remains adamant that the most effective path is non-violent resistance, expressed in the family insistence on staying put.
Mariam, the older daughter, plays a daring game by sneaking upstairs and observing the soldiers secretly through a crack in a closet door.
To her surprise, the young, cleancut soldiers are quite human. One plays the flute, another does art work, they miss home and they bitch about their officers.
The exception is Ofer, a disciplinarian and bit of a bully, who keeps the men in line and at one point threatened to shoot Mohammad, but even he eventually complains about constantly moving from one Arab house to another. Despite the extreme stress, the Arab family is almost too good to be true, regardless of ethnicity. Mohammad is a deeply caring father and tender husband, the wife is scared but loyal, and the youngest kids are Hollywood cute.
The father is portrayed by Mohammad Bakri, a veteran Israeli Arab character actor, whose mixture of fortitude and sensitivity gives the film much of its strength. The wife's role is skillfully acted by Areen Omari.
In shooting the film, director Costanzo favored hand-held cameras and barely visible interior settings, not always to the film's or viewer's advantage.
It is obvious that he intends to steer the audience's sympathy toward the family. But as in earlier films by both Palestinian and Israeli directors (Divine Intervention, Rana's Wedding, and The Syrian Bride), with foreign audiences in mind, the Israelis are portrayed not as ruthless conquerors but as recognizable human characters.