Despite an act of terrorism being the organizing principle for all that follows in “The Attack,” the film’s power exists more on an internal level than a political one.
The film by Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri follows Amin (Ali Suliman), a Palestinian surgeon who must try to reconcile what he knew about his wife Siham (Reymonde Amsellem) with an action so horrible it defies explanation, creating an identity crisis of his own.
As the film opens, Amin is at an elite ceremony in Tel Aviv, where he is the first Arab to ever win what’s described as the “Oscar” for doctors. With an ability to blend seamlessly into Israeli society, the troubles between Israelis and Palestinians seem to exist only as a far-off problem for others.
But the next day, Amin’s world – both his place in it and with those he holds dear – is turned upside down after the sound of a distant bomb going off. Seventeen people are killed at a children’s birthday party, 11 of them children, and victims are rushed into Amin’s operating room as he struggles to save as many as he can.
The biggest shock, though is yet to come. Amin is summoned to identify his wife’s body in the morgue – and then is told it bears signs that she had strapped the bomb to her body.
Amin’s shock and grief are compounded by being cuffed as a suspected accomplice, thrown into jail and denied sleep for three days as part of a brutal interrogation before getting released.
When Amin’s denial about his wife’s involvement gives way to acceptance, he heads to Nablus, a hotbed of radical Islam where his wife had last gone, to find out who “brainwashed” her.
Suddenly, Amin seems like someone without a country – not Israel, where friends have grown suspicious and his career is now at risk, or Palestine, where Siham has been accorded iconic status, even by family members, as a freedom-fighting terrorist in the West Bank, and some suspect Amin to be working for Israel’s security services.
Just who was Siham? Beautiful, mysterious, loving and elusive, she appears in flashbacks through her husband’s selective and possibly idealized memory. But was her desire to live in a country she could call her own enough to blow up a children’s birthday party, when she herself wanted children but was unable to conceive? The “why” of what happened, which is at the center of the story, unfortunately never really rings true given what’s known about her.
And just who is Amin, a man who is suddenly countryless, not trusted as an Arab Israeli or Palestinian?
The film, based on a 2005 novel of the same title by Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra, doesn’t take a stand on Israeli policies, but it was banned in Lebanon and other members of the Arab League simply for being filmed there. That shouldn’t stop Arabs and others from finding the film and contemplating the important issues that are raised, if not always convincingly.