The Attack is best viewed as a detective story of a man retracing his wife's footsteps into a shadowy, nebulous world he's perhaps incapable of understanding.
The Attack (SFJFF Review)
Though set in the trenches of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ziad Doueiri’s mystery-thriller The Attack operates predominantly on an intimate, human level, centering on a Palestinian man living in Tel Aviv (Ali Suliman) who’s bent on smoking out the people responsible for somehow compelling his Christian Arab wife to take her own life via suicide bombing (a shock to him), all the while wrestling with suppressed issues of identity. The film, based on Yasmina Khadra’s award-winning novel, is best viewed as a detective story of a man retracing his wife’s footsteps into a shadowy, nebulous world he’s perhaps incapable of understanding rather than a political thriller, though it offers plenty of substance on that front as well.
Suliman plays Amin, a decorated surgeon and the first Arab-Israeli in history to receive a career achievement award (the ceremony opens the film.) He’s reached the pinnacle of his career, and he’s worked hard to become fully integrated into his cushy life in Tel Aviv. Late the next night, Amin is called back to the hospital, not to save a life, but to identify the deformed body of his beloved, wife, Siham (Reymond Amsalem) who he thought had been out of town visiting her grandfather. She’s implicated in a suicide bombing that’s taken the lives of nineteen innocents, including children.
Amin is viciously interrogated and barked at by the police (a trope that’s made interesting by Doueiri’s creative camerawork), and after the authorities conclude that he didn’t, in fact, have any knowledge of his wife’s attack, they let him walk. Amin is vehemently opposed to the notion that Siham was capable of such a senseless act of violence; he believes she’d been “brainwashed”, though the evidence almost concretely confirms her as guilty. Drowning in paranoia and denial (evoked brilliantly by Suliman), he retraces Siham’s steps—gathering clues, interrogating strangers, getting in a scuffle or two—until his searching leads him to Nablus, where he uncovers truths that prove more amorphous than satisfactory.
The tragedy here isn’t simply that Amin’s lost his wife; it’s that her memory’s been tarnished and distorted so badly it’s now unrecognizable to him. In the form of judiciously placed flashbacks and quiet moments of agonizing reflection (at times Suliman resembles a lost child), we see Amin’s world come undone. He recalls an impassioned dispute with Siham over her decision to miss his award ceremony. She was suspiciously evasive in her reasoning for missing the most important day of Amin’s career, and the likely possibility that she ditched him to launch a terrorist attack is as petrifying as it is confounding.
Doueiri doesn’t make any biased political statements about the Middle Eastern conflict, playing it fair in his portrayals of both the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. Amin is wary of the Israelis who he believes framed Siham, and he seeks out the Palestinians who “brainwashed” her with a vengeance. Neither side is unfairly vilified, and the narrative is focused squarely on Amin’s plight as opposed to the political baggage inherent in the setting. Any political observations are allegorical, presented in the form of Amin’s festering inner-conflict.
Suliman’s obsessive chase after the image of a mysterious woman lightly recalls James Stewart in Vertigo at times, though he’s not nearly as charismatic. Doueiri has a gift for visual storytelling; he’s able to put us right inside Amin’s state of mind with artfully blocked and composed shots. As Amin walks into the morgue to see Siham’s corpse, Doueiri places the camera inches behind Suliman’s head, making his dread our own. Occasionally, Doueiri’s visual vocabulary outshines his penmanship; some of the expositional dialogue in the latter half of the film is so cryptic it became tiresome for me to follow. However, the lasting images Doueiri conjures are what I ultimately took with me after all was said and done, and the droning, ambient electronic music he pairs with the visuals adds a surprising amount of tension and mood. The Attack’s finale is equal parts thought-provoking and heart-crushing, and a fitting end to an intense rush of a movie that gets more thrilling as it goes.