“The Attack” opens like a love story, with a woman telling her husband that every time they separate, “a part of me dies.” In light of what happens next, those words take on another, more ominous meaning.
Set in Tel Aviv and the West Bank town of Nablus, the taut but messily honest tale is the story of Amin (Ali Suliman), a prominent Israeli surgeon of secular Palestinian background who wakes up one morning to discover that his beautiful wife, Siham (Reymond Amsalem), has become a suicide bomber, responsible for blowing herself up in a restaurant, along with 17 other victims, including 11 children celebrating a birthday. It’s 3 a.m. when Amin gets the call to identify his wife’s body, or what’s left of it. The grisly fact that there’s not much left of Siham from the rib cage down is pretty much all the incriminating evidence that the police need.
That doesn’t stop Amin, who is also initially cast under suspicion, from believing that there must be some mistake. As it becomes increasingly obvious that the mistake was his — in overlooking whatever clues there may have been to Siham’s secret life as a Palestinian terrorist — he sets out to find answers to a difficult question, as he frames it: “How do you make a fundamentalist monster out of a woman who wouldn’t hurt a fly?”
The search takes Amin briefly to Nazareth, where his wife was from, and then to Nablus, where she spent the last night of her life. What he ends up finding along the way are only more questions.
Based on a 2006 novel by former Algerian military officer Mohammed Moulessehoul, who writes under the female pseudonym Yasmina Khadra, the film has been banned in almost all Arab countries because of a boycott request by the Arab League. Officially, that request is the result of Lebanese-born director Ziad Doueiri’s decision to film in Israel, but it’s just as likely that the League’s concern arises from a perception that the story refuses to demonize that country or the people who live there.
What’s probably more accurate is that “The Attack” spreads the blame around for what is undeniably a nasty situation, any way you look at it. As “The Attack” tells it, Siham’s ideological conversion is attributed to her witnessing the aftermath of what one character calls a “massacre” in the West Bank town of Jenin, presumably by Israel.
Amin is shown there, standing amid a pile of rubble marked by a piece of graffiti reading “Ground Zero,” but we never see the victims of this earlier attack. Doueiri is less squeamish about showing bloody Jewish children being wheeled into Amin’s emergency room after his wife’s bombing.
Amin is a man caught in the middle, in excruciating pain: a “good Arab” suddenly as unwelcome among his frightened Jewish neighbors as he is persona non grata to the Palestinians among whom he spent his youth and who now see him as a traitor. Hampering Amin’s investigation into his wife’s extremist contacts is the fact that almost everyone in the West Bank thinks he’s there as a tool of Shin Bet, the Israeli security service. They’re afraid — and probably not without reason — that Amin’s snooping will bring further repression.
Doueiri is to be commended for showing how starkly different life in Tel Aviv is from life in Nablus. It isn’t so much the checkpoints or the economic disparities, but the widely divergent world views. In Israel, Siham is a murderer of children; in the West Bank, where her picture is suddenly on every wall, she’s hailed as a martyr.
On one level, “The Attack” is a mystery, but not the kind you think. It’s obvious from the start who detonated the bomb; the only question is why.
It’s a question that probably cannot be answered to the satisfaction of anyone living outside Israel or the occupied territories. If the lack of closure seems frustrating to American viewers, it’s something of a consolation to know that it also seems that way to Amin, who echoes the sentiment expressed by his wife at the beginning of the movie when he closes the movie with essentially the same words, addressed to a dead woman: “Every time you leave me, a part of me dies.”
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some grisly images, obscenity, brief nudity and sensuality. In Hebrew and Arabic with subtitles. 102 minutes.