Tel Aviv Rorschach

The Attack, a tasteful thriller about a Palestinian suicide bombing, will please both sides of the divide. And that’s its problem.

Michael Atkinson

Amin (Ali Suliman) looks at a poster of Sihem (Reymonde Amsellem), his suicide-bomber wife. (Photo courtesy of Icarus Films.)

At first blush, The Attack comes off as another well-meaning, polished and grown-up-yet-middle-brow Israeli drama about the relationship between Jews and Arabs. The premise (adapted from the bestselling novel by Yasmina Khadra) is irresistible: Amin (Ali Suliman), a fully assimilated and respected Israeli Arab surgeon living in Tel Aviv, discovers soon after winning a career-summit award that his foxy wife Sihem (Reymonde Amsellem) has been killed in a suicide-bombing attack across the city. He has little time to mourn, however, because almost as soon as he learns of her death he is informed that Sihem was the bomber — her corpse, rather harrowingly, has no lower half. Temporarily imprisoned, beaten and grilled by the Shin Bet, and ostracized by his colleagues, the fastidiously secular Amin is confounded by the fact that the woman he thought he knew could do such a thing. His need to find out why pulls him into the orbit of the terrorist al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

The politics of military imperialism and the terroristic response to it do not make for easy screenwriting. Even if you fall to one side or the other personally, your film cannot ignore the cost in blood and limbs and dead children incurred on both sides.

It’s a slick, smartly engineered film, crafted by director Ziad Doueiri with gravity and taste. The limning of Israeli social norms with regard to the educated Arabs in their midst is subtle and sharp. As Amin goes in an instant from being a token-minority golden boy within the Israeli establishment to being the presumed accomplice of a terrorist, and therefore an ungrateful traitor to Israeli largesse, the movie communicates the character’s tectonic displacement with looks, silences and physical distance. Suliman himself deftly holds the film together, downshifting from neo-bourgeois smugness to glazed horror and never coming up for air. 

But contrary to appearances, Doueiri’s film is not Israeli, but Lebanese (with funding from France and Qatar), and it lacks the earthy-crunchy can’t we-just-get-along vibe of so many Israeli films. In fact, it’s hard at first to tell what exactly the film’s political position is. Both sides of the divide are eloquently voiced, at least in terms of war and violence. 

On one hand, Amin is revolted by the realization that his wife killed children when she exploded and is subsequently celebrated in Nablus with ubiquitous martyrdom posters. On the other, Sihem must’ve had a good reason, right? She is not, in Amin’s flashbacks, an unstable or fanatical woman, and she’s not even Muslim. However righteous and angry the Shin Bet agents and Amin’s Israeli Jewish colleagues are about the bombing, the Palestinians Amin meets on his odyssey, including members of his own family, left behind in the Occupied Territories as his career thrived, are also righteously aware of the oppression and violence Amin’s been sheltered from, and which Sihem secretly grew to abhor.

The politics of military imperialism and the terroristic response to it do not make for easy screenwriting. Even if you fall to one side or the other personally, your film cannot ignore the cost in blood and limbs and dead children incurred on both sides of the equation. In the end, Doueiri’s film does take sides — with the Palestinians and against the Israelis, with their Apache helicopters and superior attitude toward Amin, whom they feel they allowed” to succeed.

But the story ultimately locates the final blame on Amin himself — his selfish, laissez-faire conformism is the last inexcusable factor, a chosen path neither side can respect. Taken generally, it’s a salient point: Today, we’re all too noncommittal, allowing governments like ours and Israel’s to kill in cold blood as we upgrade our iPhones and keep up with Mad Men.

Yet isn’t Amin something of a straw man? Shouldn’t his character — nonideological, productive, acculturized, humanist — be an ideal, for Palestinians and Israelis alike? Or for Americans, Iranians, Afghans, Burmese, Tamil, and so on? Are we supposed to think that secular professionals who don’t commit violence are the root of the problem? Wouldn’t more Amins in the world mean less maniacal militarism and less bloodshed? 

I couldn’t help but feel as though Doueiri’s movie, however adept and mature, is something of a setup, an all-purpose guilt machine. Doueiri may feel strongly about the occupation of Palestine, but his new movie focuses on minor aspects of this complex dynamic and ignores others, and then dares to blame the apolitical.

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Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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