As The Attack begins, the prosperous, successful Dr. Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman) is missing just one thing: his wife’s presence as he becomes the first Arab-Israeli to win a prestigious national medical prize.
Even as the Tel Aviv physician accepts the award, however, his life is unraveling. And by the time director and co-writer Ziad Doueiri’s drama is done with him, Amin has lost it all — including his illusion of having a homeland.
Reworking the plot of a novel by Franco-Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra, the Lebanese director presents a vision of Israel’s Arab citizenry that’s grim yet nuanced. Amin comes to see that he will never be accepted by Jewish Israelis on his own terms. But there is also no place for him in the West Bank, where fanatics have just incinerated his reputation — and much more.
Not long after his moment of triumph, Amin and his colleagues hear an explosion and rush to the operating room. A suicide bomber has killed 17 people and wounded dozens more. Amin tends to as many as possible, even those who demand a non-Arab doctor.
Much later that night, he’s summoned back to the hospital, but not for more surgery. He’s asked to identify the body of the bomber: his wife, Sihem (Reymonde Amsellem).
Amin is then brutally interrogated, but professes his own innocence as well as his wife’s. Ultimately, he’s exonerated and released. To his Israeli friends and co-workers, however, Amin knows he will always be a little bit guilty.
Raised as a Christian, Sihem had lived a secular life — a choice described as a pose by a belligerent Israeli detective, but one that was real enough to her husband. Indeed, Amin refuses to believe that Sihem was the bomber until he receives a letter from her that posthumously acknowledges the crime.
The letter answers only one of Amin’s many questions. For more information, he travels to Nablus to talk with Sihem’s family members, most of whom have nothing — or nothing useful — to say. Amin also tries to meet an imam he suspects influenced his wife and has a chilling conversation with a Christian priest who’s the movie’s most unexpected character.
Even that talk is less startling, though, than Sihem’s new status as a martyr. Amin is offered postcards, keychains and posters bearing images of his wife — the mass murderer as this week’s Palestinian pop star.
Suliman, who plays Amin, also starred in Paradise Now, and it’s no stretch to say The Attack is the most urgent, unblinking movie about the Israeli-Palestinian divide since that 2005 stunner. If Doueiri’s drama is less complex than its predecessor, it’s impeccably made. The Lebanese filmmaker is best known for 1998’s West Beirut, but he lived for a time in Hollywood, where he learned a few things about pacing and staging from his jobs on such Quentin Tarantino pictures as Pulp Fiction.
One thing Doueiri didn’t get from Tarantino is smirky attitude; The Attack is sad and resigned, but also tender. The story begins with just the husband and wife, and ultimately loops back to the couple, now together only in Amin’s memory. There are even moments that are gently erotic. (This is not why the movie has been banned by the Arab League, which is more upset by the sympathetic depiction of Israelis.)
As he ponders his wife’s final day, Amin realizes he missed one last chance to talk with her. The moment, and the emotions it conjures, is profoundly intimate. But it’s far from the story’s only instance of failed communication — whether on a personal or a national scale. (Recommended)