'The Attack' reaches for a rare Mideast neutral

The drama directed by Ziad Doueiri doesn't simplify the immense human complexity of the plot.

By , Film critic

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    'The Attack' stars Reymond Amsellem (l.) and Ali Suliman (r.).
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As “The Attack” opens, Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), an Israeli-Arab surgeon practicing in Tel Aviv, is seeing off his wife, Siham (Reymond Amsellem), as she departs by bus for a trip to Nazareth. They have been married 15 years and it’s clear that their bond is close.

Soon after, he accepts an award – the first given to an Arab in 41 years, he gently adds – at a convocation of Israeli surgeons. When, the next day, a bomb goes off nearby, the shock is compounded by the fact that, for these doctors, the ensuing chaos has become routine. The victims of the terrorist attack arrive at the hospital in ambulances. Seventeen people, it turns out, including nearly a dozen children, have been killed.

For Amin, the real shocker is that one of the victims, whom he is called in to identify, is his wife, who is verified by Israeli detectives as having been the suicide bomber in the attack. The rest of the film is taken up with Amin’s attempts to answer the question: How can this be?

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Dismissive at first of the accusation, Amin inexorably traces his wife’s double life as his incomprehension morphs into anguish. He discovers that Siham never went to Nazareth. He travels to the Palestinian territories and visits Jenin, the site where dozens of civilians were killed by Israel Defense Forces. He seeks out Siham’s religious mentors and discovers that, in their eyes, she is a martyr.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the number of Palestinians killed in Jenin.]

Director Ziad Doueiri, who co-wrote the film with his wife, Joelle Touma, based on a novel by Yasmina Khadra (the pen name of a former Algerian Army officer living in France), is Lebanese. He shot part of the film in and around Tel Aviv, violating a longstanding prohibition against citizens of Lebanon working in Israel.
As a result of this transgression, the 22-member League of Arab States boycotted the film (ensuring that Arab audiences will only be able to see this film on pirated DVDs). But the real reason, as Doueiri stated in a recent Los Angeles Times interview, is more complicated. “I’ve somehow committed a breach by showing the Israelis in a sympathetic way,” he said. “They think that by being neutral you are actually showing an Israeli point of view.” (Because Palestinian actors did not wish to be associated with the film, the role of Siham, ironically, was cast with a Jewish actress who studied Arabic for the part.)

Given the pressures that Doueiri no doubt faced in making this movie, as well as his own highly conflicted background, his film is decidedly evenhanded. (According to the Times interview, he “grew up hating Jews and Israel” before college studies in the United States and a visit to the Holy Land changed his mind-set.) “The Attack” doesn’t simplify the immense human complexity it puts before us.

It is possible, I suppose, for an ardently anti-Israel audience to see in Siham’s action a necessary retribution, but this is not how the film presents it. Amin, through whose eyes we view the film, does not regard his wife as a freedom fighter. And for this, he is held in deep suspicion as a traitor by his own people, who also believe (not without cause) that he is being tailed by the Israelis in his quest.

Doueiri, who previously directed the 1998 “West Beirut” and lives in Paris, has worked as a camera assistant for Quentin Tarantino. (Would that his mentor were as judicious in his portrayal of onscreen violence.) He is not unfamiliar with the tropes of Western action filmmaking, but “The Attack” is primarily a philosophical quest. Suliman is not the most expressive of actors for this journey, but his closed-off quality suits the character’s expanding bewilderment.

If “The Attack” were to be shown in Arab countries, would it encourage amity? I rather doubt it, alas. As this film demonstrates in so many ways, the intractability of the Arab-Israeli political situation is, to put it mildly, not easily resolved, least of all onscreen. Grade: B+ (Rated R for some violent images, language, and brief sexuality.)

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