‘The Attack’: Is there a middle ground?

June 18, 2013


No one, it is said, knows what goes on in someone else’s marriage. Even more to the point, no one can know what’s going on in another person’s head.

Those notions are among many at the crux of Ziad Doueiri’s haunting, provocative “The Attack,” based on the novel by Yasmina Khadra, opening in limited release Friday (6/21/13). The husband at the center of the story thinks he knows everything about his wife – until he realizes he knows almost nothing.

This gripping tale makes political questions personal, taking a sprawling divide between cultures and showing it through the eyes of one unfortunate man. He’s a doctor – a healer – who learns there is no healing a rift as jagged and provocative as the one this film portrays.

His realization about his wife comes about midway through the film. Until that point, Dr. Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman) believes that he’s got just about the perfect life. First seen collecting an award as the top surgeon in Israel – the first time the award has gone to an Arab – he has a gorgeous home, a thriving career and a beautiful wife, Siham (Reymond Amsalem).

But the day after he receives the award, he’s on duty when the hospital emergency room is flooded with victims, people who have been wounded or killed in a suicide-bomb attack in a Tel Aviv restaurant. It is only hours later, after he has saved who he can and gone home to an empty house, that he gets the real news: Police suspect that his wife was, in fact, the suicide bomber.

Even when he identifies what amounts to half a corpse (the part from the chest down has been blown away), he cannot believe the charge – and bitterly resents police insinuations that he knew about the attack or may even have assisted in it. In fact, he is clueless – but he is angry enough to try to track down the facts.

What follows is a journey into his own personal identity crisis. As he travels into the Palestinian territory of Nablus, we come to understand just how far removed he is from his roots. Though he has been accepted professionally in Israel, he is still the other, when push comes to shove. But he left his own people so long ago that he no longer belongs there.

That becomes clear when he reconnects with his sister, who he hasn’t seen in 20 years. Where has he been? Climbing the ladder of success. And her? Right there where she’s always been, living in a stateless existence, suffering the kind of everyday indignities that he has risen above.

This isn’t a film about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Nor does Doueiri offer arguments on either side of that chasm, beyond simple statements of fact about the lives of these people. No one is trying to convince anyone about one side or the other of this seemingly endless argument.

Instead, this is about one man trying to clear away all the detritus that has accumulated in his life, obscuring his view of his own identity. Who is he really? Who is he to his friends (who are all Israeli Jews)? More important, who did he think his wife was? And who did she turn out to be?

Doueiri is purposely enigmatic in his story-telling and that’s a good thing. This isn’t a movie that offers a simple wrap-up to the plot. There isn’t an “Aha!” moment that explains everything that has come before. Suliman is his perfect vehicle, an actor whose strength and humanity also let through confusion and vulnerability.

Instead, as in life – and like the character of Amin Jaafari – we are left at the end of “The Attack” with imponderables and questions, things that will ricochet around your brain long after this compelling and unsettling movie ends.

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