by Matt Levine
Moviegoers who expect films to provide a satisfying sense of closure, craving a narrative with conflicts that are definitively resolved through neat and tidy conclusions, face a unique challenge with The Attack: how do you provide answers to an insurmountable conflict? A sobering, unflinching, admirably clear-minded attempt to grapple with Israeli-Palestinian tensions—set in equal measure in sparkling, modern Tel Aviv and the troubled West Bank city of Nablus, which has been alternately governed by Israel and Palestine throughout its tumultuous history--The Attack strands its vulnerably human characters in the midst of a political nightmare that’s larger than them. Unable to stave off the forces of history, they react to the maelstrom, either through violent agitation or through a pacifism that’s delusively perceived as cowardice. Who is more righteous, more just: the tolerant assimilators or the dedicated freedom fighters? The Attack, recognizing it could never resolve this eternal question, merely poses it; yet simply by asking such difficult questions, it approaches some kind of reckoning.
Director: Ziad Doueiri
Producers: Rachid Bouchareb, Jean Bréhat, Tony Copti, Amir Harel
Writer: Ziad Doueiri and Joelle Touma, based on the novel by Yasmina Khadra
Cinematographer: Tommaso Fiorilli
Editor: Dominique Marcombe
Music: Éric Neveux
Cast: Ali Suliman, Evgenia Dodena, Reymond Amsalem, Dvir Benedek, Uri Gavriel, Ruba Salameh, Karim Saleh, Ramzi Makdessi
Countries: Lebanon/ France/Qatar/Belgium
Premiere: September 1, 2012 (Telluride Film Festival)
US Theatrical Release: June 21, 2013
US Video Release: November 12, 2013
US Distributor: Cohen Media Group
It would be a mistake to call The Attack a primarily political movie: without question, it’s anchored in the most daunting conflict currently waging in our fractious global state, but its real focus is the passion and uncertainty faced by flawed individuals within that political climate. In other words, it’s no Battle of Algiers: eschewing a vérité immediacy for something simultaneously more cerebral and more ardent, The Attack is a humanist, rather than an ideological, statement. We need works of political theory, of clear-eyed history and social philosophy; yet we also need this kind of emotional, character-oriented elegy, if only to remind us of the enormous human cost through which political crises are waged.
The film follows Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), a Palestinian doctor who, despite the prejudicial insults tossed off by a few intolerant colleagues, leads a comfortable, privileged life as an eminent surgeon in Tel Aviv. We’re introduced to the character as he accepts a prestigious award from the Israeli medical community, and in his speech half-jokingly asserts that every Arab has a bit of Jew in them, and vice versa. The open-hearted platitude is commendable, yet strained and self-conscious when Amin utters it, which seems intentional: Amin’s willful optimism early in the film (perhaps the result of the wealth and stature he’s been able to accrue in Tel Aviv, as Amin is frequently told later in the film by both Jews and Arabs) will soon be revealed as a hollow fallacy.
The next day, a restaurant bombing sends an onslaught of horrifically maimed victims to Amin’s operating room (including one victim who, noting Amin’s appearance and name, demands treatment from another surgeon). One of the corpses—as Amin discovers in a devastating scene remarkable for its protracted pace and utter silence—is his own wife, Siham (Reymond Amsalem), also Palestinian. Their relationship is conveyed via flashbacks, which, while sometimes sloppily edited, convey both Siham’s guarded ferocity (one of the personality traits which most entices Amin) and a sort of fragile stoicism that emerges between both of them. The inability to ever truly know another’s state of mind—including (or especially) that of the people we love most intensely—is one of the most affecting apolitical themes in The Attack, especially in an unsettling scene late in the film whereby Amin arguably learns more about his wife from a covert videotape than he did throughout their entire marriage.
Siham’s wounds indicate that she may not, in fact, be one of the bombing’s victims—that she was instead its perpetrator. Amin’s fall from grace in the eyes of his ostensibly tolerant host country is swift yet believable: eyed with suspicion, interrogated, tortured, Amin is inevitably associated with the atrocities allegedly committed by Siham. At first hysterically denying that his wife had anything to do with the attack, the proof becomes incontrovertible, most of all through a letter written by Siham to her husband on one of her last living days which is unable to conceal both her political fervor and self-loathing. Amin soon decides to travel to the northern West Bank city of Nablus, where much of his extended family still lives.
This sounds like it’s going to go exactly where Amin expects it to: he’ll wander the wartorn streets of Nablus, uncover the fundamentalist terrorist cell that indoctrinated his wife, castigate them for their bloodthirsty delusions, and come to some kind of bittersweet epiphany regarding his deceased wife. And at first The Attack strings us along, cannily playing into our expectations. Amin crosses the Israeli-Palestinian border, witnessing a shockingly violent altercation between armed Palestinian guards and Israeli tourists; his first cabdriver in Nablus eagerly plays the hate-spewing sermons of a Muslim priest who calls for the extermination of all Jews.
Ultimately, though, both Amin’s and the audience’s expectations are flouted: Sheikh Marwan, the prophet whom Amin believes is responsible for his wife’s “brainwashing,” is revealed as a tactful, serious political thinker who respectfully listens to Amin’s traumatized approbations, even while he devoutly disagrees. No bloodthirsty monster, the Sheikh claims to be simply a man whose home has been violently taken away from him; echoing some of the freedom-fighter tenets spouted by Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara, he argues that the brutality of the colonizer must be returned in kind. The lengthy final conversation between Amin and Sheikh Marwan (reminiscent of a similar scene in Steve McQueen’s Hunger) in a sense summarizes the movie as a whole: a complex, ambitious grappling with notions of justice, violence, freedom, and cultural belonging, it refuses to lionize or vilify either philosophy, responding even to inexcusable, murderous behavior with bitter sympathy, not outrage.
This admirable refusal to condemn any of its characters, either Israeli or Palestinian, has drawn controversy from both sides of the political conflict. As of June 2013, The Attack has been banned or remains unreleased in every Arab country for the crime of filming in Israel—that is, every Arab country besides Morocco, where it played at the Marrakech International Film Festival in 2012 (and won the Grand Prize). Meanwhile, some critics have given the movie flak for overtly sympathizing with the Palestinian cause, including at least one character who is undeniably a “terrorist”—presuming, I guess, that it’s better to shut out and demonize political enemies than to try to understand their actions. The Attack doesn’t psychoanalyze any of its flawed characters—there’s no key to unlocking their brutal philosophies, no ultimate epiphany reached by the end—but it couldn’t have been any other way; the endless conflict won’t be resolved by a single movie, so all The Attack can do is observe and sympathize and linger despairingly on the heartache. By not proselytizing for one cause over another, the movie shows courage in the face of heated nationalistic passions.
The director, Ziad Doueiri, is a Lebanese filmmaker who cut his teeth serving as a cameraman for Quentin Tarantino before returning to Beirut in the early 2000s. Most of his features--West Beirut (1998), Lila Says (2004), the upcoming Foreign Affairs—deal with political strife in Arab countries or the difficulty for the Arab diaspora to adjust to new homelands throughout the world. Given his Lebanese upbringing, his opposition to Israeli boycotts by Arab countries, and his decision to film The Attack in Tel Aviv with Israeli actors, it’s easy (yet maybe misleading) to see Amin as a stand-in for Doueiri: proudly Arab yet hopeful for some kind of armistice between Israel and Palestine, both the protagonist and the director are unable to dismiss the looming, catastrophic rift that exists between the two nations. In The Attack, Amin’s strategy for dealing with the conflict is to evade it until it’s too late, and the actions of his deceased wife force him to question his own pacifistic ideals; Doueiri, on the other hand, in adapting Yasmina Khadra’s novel, confronts the conflict head-on, unflinchingly dissecting the interpenetration of religious fanaticism and political violence.
Doueiri’s editing can often be careless and he fails to stylistically expound upon his ideas: there’s a lot of complicated crosscutting going on (with frequent bittersweet flashbacks to Amin and Siham’s marriage, as well as sudden jump cuts from Nablus to Tel Aviv), but Doueiri and his editor, Dominique Marcombe, don’t even attempt to transition between these scenes in a unique or well-composed manner. (This could be seen as a portrayal of the unsettlingly close proximity between Palestine and Israel, though that jarring tension could be visually conveyed in more interesting ways than simply careless editing.) The cinematography is perpetually coated in a dreary color palette, which, predictably, only brightens during sporadic flashbacks. In other words, Doueiri is a much better thinker than craftsman, as he’s predominantly concerned with pondering the hazy morality of political violence and its cataclysmic emotional repercussions.
But ultimately, I’d rather have Doueiri’s political ambiguity and philosophical aspirations than a sleek devotion to craft, and if The Attack is aesthetically undistinguished, it’s redeemed by one of the most unsettling investigations of morality, insurgency, and grief (and one of the most devastating endings) in recent memory. Some have called the movie politically simplistic for failing to provide a compelling “reason” for Siham’s newfound militancy, but it’s absurd to expect the movie to do something that psychologists and political mediators have been unable to do for centuries. All The Attack can do is force us to think about the circumstances that give rise to such violence and the traumatic emotional fallout that ensues, which is itself an unfortunately rare and significant feat in modern cinema.