Ziad Doueiri’s 2012 film The Attack, based on Yasmina Khadra’s 2007 novel of the same title, is a powerful story set against the backdrop of the Israel-Palestine morass. Although it lacks some of the teeth of its source material, it is a powerful document nonetheless, buoyed by outstanding performances and a straightforward, no-nonsense visual style.
Where the novel managed to balance slow-burn fury with elegiac sadness – no easy task, that – the movie prefers to downplay the fury and focus on the sadness, opening it up to charges of pandering to a pro-West, pro-Israeli viewpoint. True enough, but the fact remains that this is a story that defies easy categorization or even politicization, which is remarkable given its subject matter. As such, it’s an important film, and one that deserves to be viewed by a wide audience.
The story is simple enough. Amin Jaafari is a successful Israeli-Palestinian surgeon living in Israel; despite growing up in the Palestinian town of Nablus, he is now fully assimilated into the dominant culture, with a home in Tel Aviv and plenty of Jewish friends and co-workers. He speaks Hebrew and is happily married to a beautiful Christian woman, Siham, who grew up in Nazareth. Jaafari is the poster child for peaceful coexistence. The Israeli government even awards him a medal.
One day a suicide bombing rocks a Tel Aviv restaurant, killing and maiming a children’s birthday party. Jaafari works feverishly in the hospital to save as many victims as he can, but 17 die anyway, including 11 children. The event is almost too horrific to accept. The only saving grace is that Siham is out of town, visiting her family in Nazareth.
Except that she’s not. In fact, she was in the restaurant at the time of the explosion. In fact, she died. In fact, she herself was the suicide bomber.
The balance of the film is concerned with Jaafari’s slow acceptance of this fact, and then his drive to learn what caused her to do it. His wife, he believes, was never political – and certainly never interested in murdering children. Jaafari’s bewilderment is understandable, and something anyone could relate to; the sense of betrayal by a spouse with a secret, double life is almost palpable. In this case, though, the betrayal has consequences that expand far outside the confines of a particular marriage.
Jaafari’s search takes him to Nablus and, briefly, to Jenin (nicknamed by Palestinians as “Jeningrad” during the Israeli occupation, another little detail from the book left out of the movie). He encounters shadowy figures from the intifada movement, and comes closer to the center of where decisions are made, but the movie wisely eschews melodramatic face-offs, pat endings and neat resolutions. Jaafari comes to some sort of closure, one that alienates many of his Israeli ex-colleagues (he loses his job in the aftermath of the bombing), but even this sense of closure, the viewer feels, is amorphous, and far removed from hoped for peace.
Significant liberties have been taken with the book, including a hugely important framing device which has been scrapped altogether (and which has enormous ramifications for Jaafari’s character). No less significant are other cuts, including a powerful scene at the end of the novel in which Jaffrey and an elderly man from the Occupied Territories watch as Israelis construct the containment wall that divides them, literally as well as figuratively. This is one of those smoldering, furious scenes that the director has seen fit to excise; with nothing to replace it, the film becomes far less concerned than the novel in presenting a multifaceted examination of the story’s tragic events.
Despite these changes, the movie remains powerful. The cast is outstanding, particularly Ali Suliman as Jaafari, whose hooded eyes and hunched posture provide a physical analogue to the emotional confusion that is wearing him down. The visual presentation is engaging without being flashy; there are no melodramatic camera angles or zoom-cuts to detract from the low-key desperation that imbues much of the story. Some hand-held camera shots do add to a sense of disorientation and confusion, but they are used sparingly.
Extras on the blu-ray are disappointing. An interview with Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, now based in Los Angeles, lasts only four minutes and offers little by way of insight; it’s a puff piece that avoids any questions about decisions he made in altering the source material for the film. (It’s worth wondering whether those changes were needed in order to get the necessary permits to film in Israel.) Apart from this, the only extra is a set of still photos from the movie.
Ultimately, of course, the extras are far less significant than the film itself. This seems a likely contender for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, in which case its exposure would be greatly expanded. It’s something to hope for, as films like The Attack and 2005’s excellent Paradise Now are badly needed to provide context and understanding in the midst of an intractable situation.