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," the work of Italian director Saverio Costanzo, was 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 the not-yet nation of 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, Academy spokeswoman Teni Melidonian said. The problem lies in the fact that 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" Melidonian said.
Italy quickly substituted another film, titled "La Bestia Nel Cuore" ("Don't Tell" in English), but the controversy shouldn't overshadow this intriguing movie, which includes 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 wants 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 nonviolent 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, clean-cut soldiers are quite human. One plays the flute, another does artwork; they miss home, and they complain about their officers.
The exception is Ofer, a disciplinarian and bit of a bully, who keeps the men in line and at one point threatens 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. Nevertheless, 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.
"Private," with English subtitles, opens Dec. 2 at the Laemmle Fairfax 3 in Los Angeles, One Colorado in Pasadena and University Town Center in Irvine. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com or www.typecastfilms.com for details.
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