Connecting with The Attack presents a challenge: do we dare compare the handful of terrorist attacks on American soil to the pervasive, daily threat of death that’s part of living in the Middle East? Following the horrific suicide bombing that drives his film’s momentum, Ziad Doueiri, formerly one of Quentin Tarantino’s camera assistant and director of the 1998 Cannes winner West Beirut, we may tentatively respond in the negative. If the violent explosion – which Doueiri chooses not to show – echoes with personal familiarity, its context remains wholly foreign to us no matter how much we see reflections of our own homes and lives in the streets of Tel Aviv.
Where Doueiri does successfully pave in-roads toward empathy for and understanding of The Attack‘s characters and politics lies in the themes he explores and the questions he asks. Admittedly, he answers only a few of them, but in a post-9/11 world where this year’s Boston Marathon Bombing still remains fresh in America’s memory, US audiences should immediately find a sort of self-identification with the film’s unnerving basic conceit. How does one discover the place of origin for an act of terror? What kind of person do you have to be to strap C4 to your body and flip the switch in a crowded space? Where do the martyrs come from?
You may not want to hear The Attack‘s thoughts on that particular issue; according to Doueiri, they’re found in your backyard. They’re your neighbors. They’re members of the upper-middle class, suburban, educated left. More specifically, they’re the beautiful, gentle spouses of gifted, prominent Arab surgeons who have successfully integrated into Israeli culture. That’s where The Attack finds its mooring, at least – by focusing on Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), an outsider in the city he calls home who has nonetheless been welcomed with open arms by his local area colleagues. As is often the case for characters who have the rug pulled out from underneath them, he seems to have it all: wealth, reputation, a wonderful house, and, of course, his loving wife, Sihem (Reymonde Amsellem).
But then she blows up a restaurant in Tel Aviv, taking seventeen people with her, and everything immediately, irrevocably changes for Amin. At first, he plots a course of firm denial, and one can hardly blame him. As we come to know her through flashbacks, Sihem is nearly angelic in appearance and in character; Doueiri favors natural, unfussed lighting, but in Amin’s memories she’s luminous in her warmth. Of course he refuses to buy her culpability in the attack, and for a time, we do, too. We only know Sihem so much, but she doesn’t strike us as a terrorist at all, much like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev didn’t fit our preconceived notions of what that term means. (The similarities here are somewhat harrowing.) But perhaps we rally behind the heartbroken Amin only out of sympathetic solidarity. All else aside, he’s an innocent man subjected to immeasurable grief and the brutal accusations of callous police interrogators who naturally assume he’s complicit.
Doueiri spends much of the film sorting through the shattered fragments of Amin’s once perfect existence before eventually shifting gears and journeying into Palestinian territories. Even when he’s convinced of Sihem’s guilt, he cannot abide the frustration and emotional suffering that comes with that realization, so he traces her steps to weed out the influential source in her decision to die. Amin needs to play detective to fully reconcile his grief; the film, on the other hand, requires he do so in order to examine the ideology of martyrdom, and so he travels out to Nablus for the sake of the full truth.
If a confrontation between Amin and the cell that turned his kindhearted wife into a suicide bomber sounds ridiculous on paper, it’s less ridiculous in practice. In an American film, the final third of The Attack might involve Amin’s character fighting off a bad guy or two, perhaps buying a small justice for himself and for his wife. In Doeuiri’s film, he gets what he’s after, but it’s little consolation, and he proves as helpless in his search for answers as he does in his quest for acceptance. He is followed, bullied, stymied, and mildly threatened at every turn he takes, no less an interloper in Palestine than in Israel.
What viewers mine out of the film will inevitably vary. Some may read The Attack as pro-Palestine propaganda, a film that evokes sympathy for men like Amin and the victims of Israeli aggression; the message is that Israel breeds its enemies through military and political action. Others, meanwhile, might argue that Doueiri’s intentions lean in the opposite direction, and that his picture tells a story of the twisted logic behind the Palestinian agenda. In short, your reaction to the film hinges on your feelings about that ageless conflict, but Doueiri’s real purpose may be far more bipartisan. Often, The Attack plays like a quiet, stern condemnation of both Palestinian and Israeli saber rattling rather than an endorsement for either side. There are no heroes here, just angry, hurt human beings eagerly pursuing a vengeance they dress up as righteous.
Ultimately, The Attack allies itself with no one other than family. You may wish to mull over the conclusion at which Amin arrives in the film’s climax, rightfully so; Doueiri opts for grey ambiguity over black and white finality. What he does make certain, though, is to bring Amin’s mourning for the wife he thought he knew full circle, which brings the film’s real point to the forefront. Stuck between two dueling parties, alone in a land where even your friends can’t help but acknowledge your status as “other”, the struggles of the many prove meaningless next to the wounds of the individual. In The Attack, the Zionist and Arab disputes matter much less than one person’s incomprehensible loss.