starring Ali Suliman, Remonde Amsellem, Evgenia Dodina, Karim Saleh
screenplay by Joelle Touma and Ziad Doueiri, based on the novel by Yasmina Khadra
directed by Ziad Doueiri
by Walter Chaw Lebanese-born Ziad Doueiri, an assistant cameraman on Quentin Tarantino's first three features, demonstrates as a director the kind of elliptical reserve more commonly associated with Terrence Malick. Indeed, the most powerful stretches of his sophomore effort, The Attack, recall the fragments of The Thin Red Line that elucidate Pvt. Bell's wife's betrayal through a series of voiceovers, remembered conversations, and gauzy/idealized images of a bucolic existence that may or may not have ever existed. An adaptation of a novel by Yasmina Khadra, The Attack details the discovery by an Arab emergency-room surgeon based in Israel, Amin (Ali Suliman), that his wife Siham (Reymond Amsalem, who has the quality and pitch of Illeana Douglas--a wonderful thing) is the suicide bomber responsible for an attack in Tel Aviv, the casualties of which we watch Amin try to save. Amin has been "accepted" by the Jews, we understand, though there's tension throughout the early scenes as his friends and colleagues awkwardly navigate around him in a way that reads initially as condescending, then increasingly hostile as events unfold. Hannah Arendt would have something to say about this; so would Paula Deen and her legion of insensate followers. When Amin receives an award for his work, his acceptance speech includes the platitude that all Arabs have a little Jew in them and vice versa; by the picture's last words, "Every time you go away, a little piece of me dies," one wonders if he means the little piece that has empathy for the opposition's point of view.
Amin is called to identify his wife's body in a beautifully-executed silent take. He enters the morgue of his own hospital to see half a body, bisected at the waist, under a sheet. It's an image that later gains resonance when a note Siham leaves for her husband speaks to her sorrow that while he wants kids, what she wants is to deserve them. Her corpse is the literalization of an inability or unwillingness to have children; in her death is evocation of his dissatisfaction with her. (In its way, it's as interesting and provocative a sculpture as the "hunger" statue created across the way by the amateur artist in Rear Window.) Amin is taken into custody and grilled by brutal Israeli police captain Moshe (Uri Gavriel) about the extent of his involvement in his wife's plot as Amin's friends and colleagues, so supportive and fond the day before, stand by and say nothing. The brilliance of The Attack is that it really takes neither side: you understand that the Jews would be resentful of and exhausted by the constant terrorist attacks and the uncovering of splinter cells within; you understand that the Arabs would be resentful of being oppressed and brutalized by what they see as an invading force that has annexed their land. Throughout, Amin, searching for signposts, is haunted by conversations he had with his wife--their first encounter, their first fuck (precipitated by a finger-prick, memorialized by a cigarette), the night of his award reception when she wasn't there...
The second half of the picture sends Amin to Palestine to track the last day of his wife's life and confront whomever it was who radicalized her. It's here that The Attack weakens in portraying Amin's wife's family as immanently reasonable and embracing terrorism as the only expression left to a humiliated people. That might be correct--it certainly feels correct--but the message is injured when even the cleric Amin corners for a didactic conversation is the model of restraint and logic. Surely there's room in a movie like this to show not just the fraying around the edges of the Jewish psyche, but something like unreasonable passion in the heart of the Palestinian as well. Maybe I just can't understand. A litany of women martyrs and their possible incept points (one lost a brother to a raid, one lost a family, etc.) does much to humanize them, but what of the children's corpses we saw in the opening, torn apart, studded with glass? The problems with The Attack, in other words, are the same problems presented by Amin (and Suliman is magnificent in his cycling through grief to rage to tremulous uncertainty): that there will likely never come a point at which either side will be able to see things the way the other side sees them. The film demonstrates that no matter the attempts at level representation, there will always be a bias. The Attack works as well as it does because not only is it beautifully composed and shot, it also reduces all the troubles of the world to the mystery of how two people in love, who live their lives together, could, at the end, still be strangers to each other. Maybe somewhere in the acceptance of that, and peace with it, is hope after all.