Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), a well-respected and well-to-do Palestinian-Israeli surgeon, is always able to find the “right words at the right time,” as a friend puts it. But when his wife, Siham (Reymond Amsalem), is implicated in a suicide bombing that claims 17 lives, Amin finds his diplomatic loyalties profoundly strained. Adapted from Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra’s best-selling novel of the same name, the third film from writer-director Ziad Doueiri (West Beirut, 98; Lila Says, 04) finds a fresh road of entry into heavily occupied thematic territory.
At its essence, The Attack is about trust—the foundation of any good relationship, whether personal or political. Doueiri’s film explores just how grave the consequences can be when trust is betrayed, or worse, revealed never to have been present in the first place. Opening on Amin’s acceptance of a prestigious medical award that ostensibly signifies his integration into Israeli society, the doctor’s outsider status is made clear by the backhanded compliments his colleagues throw his way at lunch the following day. At their table overlooking Tel Aviv’s modern cityscape, the underlying tensions are suddenly granted dramatic expression in the sound of a nearby explosion.
As patients are rushed to the emergency room, we see Amin resuscitate victims, pull shards of glass from children’s flesh, and empathetically sedate one patient who refuses treatment from someone he views to be the enemy. The full reach of the explosion doesn’t set in until Amin returns home, exhausted, only to be called back to the hospital to identify his wife’s body—or what’s left of her torso. The identification scene is impeccably executed: leaning on silence rather soundtrack for impact, the visual rhythm mimics the exaggerated beating of Amin’s dread-filled and then devastated heart.
The nature of Siham’s injuries make her a prime suspect in the attack, and Amin is presumed guilty by association. He is detained, deprived of sleep, subjected to days of violent questioning, and worst of all, looked upon with suspicion by neighbors and all but his closest friends. When Amin is finally released from custody, a revealing letter from Siham mailed the day before the bombing sends him reeling into 15 years’ worth of memories. It’s in these moments that the film is at its most visually graceful, perfectly attuned to the ephemeral melancholy of retrospect. Tangible remnants of the woman he thought he knew—a childhood photo, her red silk dress, her favorite linen scarf—instantly transport Amin back to their most intimate moments, from flirtatious first encounters to post-coital conversations. Although he doesn’t quite find the answer he’s looking for, he begins to see traces, however small—a glance, an aversion of the eyes, a skillful shift in the conversation—that make him realize Siham was always fully clothed even in moments of the flesh.
The film’s slightly lengthy second half is preoccupied with Amin’s serpentine investigation into his wife’s secret identity. His journey to the occupied territories elucidates the harsh discrepancies between the privileged life he’s built for himself in Israel versus the impoverished one he's left behind. In Nablus, Amin is shunned as a deserter and a traitor to his own kind, while Siham is now regarded as a martyr: postcards bearing her saint-like image are sold in the streets alongside Arafat key chains. After visiting estranged relatives, standing up to thugs at the grand mosque, and finally arranging a candlelit encounter with the high-ranking Christian priest purported to be Siham’s spiritual mentor, Amin gains facts but no answers. Divided between his moral obligation as a doctor and a husband, an Israeli and a Palestinian, he finds himself left to wander a personal and political no-man’s-land.
With the entire film hinging on his performance, Suliman certainly delivers in the role of Amin, managing to convey a complex range of emotions underneath a remarkably stoic exterior. The always superb Amsalam breathes haunting life into her mere specter of a character that recalls her metaphysical role in Seven Minutes in Heaven, while Dvir Benedek, Uri Gavriel, and Evgenia Dodena are ideally cast as supporting characters that do more than buttress the two leads.
The Lebanese-born Doueiri, who worked as a camera assistant on early Tarantino films, opts for an overall aesthetic that is unadorned and restrained. The result is a quiet power—so quiet in fact that the score is almost non-existent—that never risks sentimentality or exploitation. Harnessing natural light to great avail, he lets the regional locations, particularly Nablus’s old city, speak for themselves. The sand-colored limestone and washed-out arid vistas exude an exhausted sense of time’s passing that tacitly places the personal conflict into harsh historical perspective. In this respect, the film (which has been banned from exhibition in Lebanon and Arab League nations) is most powerful at its most inconclusive. Arguing over Sahim’s life-and-death choices, when the priest matter-of-factly opines “we could debate this for years and still never come to the same conclusion,” Amin heaves a sigh of defeat because—at least for the time being—he suspects he’s right.