Opens Fri., July 12 at Sundance Cinemas. Rated R. 102 minutes.
The stereotype of the suicide bomber, as we all know, is Muslim, male, and mad about religion or Israel (which usually amounts to the same thing). For that reason, a Tel Aviv surgeon is confounded by the torso of a bombing victim in the morgue (one of 18). She’s female. She’s Christian. She’s the suspect, say the police. And she’s his wife.
Compounding matters even further, Dr. Jaafari (Ali Suliman) is a Palestinian-born Israeli citizen, a secular scotch drinker, and someone who wants desperately to believe in peaceful assimilation. In flashbacks and ghostly visitations, his wife Sihem (Reymoud Amsalem) doesn’t wear a veil, doesn’t talk politics, so Jaafari is stunned by the cops’ allegations.
Based on a 2005 novel by a retired Algerian military officer who once battled fundamentalists, The Attack tries hard to avoid the usual binary Palestinian/Israeli opposing worldviews. Director Ziad Doueiri is, like his protagonist, something of a hybrid: born in Lebanon, a veteran Hollywood cameraman (for Quentin Tarantino and others) who made an auspicious debut a dozen years ago with West Beirut. Divided city, divided nations, divided hero—these cruelly delineated states of being can make impartial judgments impossible. (One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist . . . it’s like stepping through the looking-glass.) Yet after a brutal police interrogation, Jaafari decides to launch his own forensic investigation, going back to visit his family in Nablus, where fiery imams spew hatred, his wife is featured in celebratory martyrdom posters, and no one will give him a direct answer.
Surgery is one thing, detective work is another. Jaafari is indignant in the ER, tending to the mangled bodies of children—this before his wife is implicated—and asking of the perpetrators, “What is wrong with these people?” He genuinely doesn’t understand. His journey to Nablus thus also becomes a process of self-discovery, a reclaiming of Palestinian identity, and this is where The Attack becomes somewhat muddled. Both we and Jaafari suspect that Islamic radicals somehow “brainwashed my wife” and made Sihem the unwitting agent of their scheme. Instead his search leads to a different—and to my mind implausible—faction.
There’s always a fresh grievance in the Middle East, and Sihem, in posthumous testimony on VHS (!), cites 2002’s “Jenin Massacre,” about which opinions will never be settled. Jaafari is less political than his wife, or perhaps more of an amnesiac about recent history. He’s a successful, practical man who doesn’t want to think about his own humble roots or his wife’s deeper motives. If The Attack ends on a frustratingly indecisive note, where notions of blame and balance fall away, it speaks to Jaafari’s awkward position. Sihem stepped through the looking-glass, but he’s forever caught on the threshold.