Something about its portrayal of a nightmarish descent into a previously inconceivable reality had us comparing Marrakech Film Festival Grand Prix winner “The Attack” to Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt.” But the crucial difference is that while the Danish film is preoccupied with social concerns, “The Attack” plunges head first into one of the thorniest, most intractable political arenas imaginable: Arab/Israeli relations. It’s an audacious undertaking, to set a narrative, almost genre, feature film in a situation whose complexities and sensitivities might make the most engaged of us a bit gunshy, but Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri almost wholly pulls it off, delivering a film that engrosses and impresses like a thriller, even as it strays deep, deep into the belly of the beast.
The beast, of course, being modern-day terrorism. The film details the journey (psychological and geographical) of Dr. Amin Jafaari, a fully integrated and hugely respected Arab doctor, living and working in Tel Aviv. A suicide bombing occurs in the centre of the city, killing 17 people, many of them children and, returning late and exhausted from the hospital that night, Jafaari is a little put out but not overly concerned to discover his beloved wife has not yet returned from her trip to Nazareth. Except she never went to Nazareth, instead she followed through on a long-gestating plan, strapped herself with explosives, walked into a restaurant and detonated her bomb. What follows is the tortuous, sometimes excruciating dismantling of all of Jafaari’s certainties in life as he goes through various stages of grief and incredulity, from blazing anger to a desperate, foolhardy search for answers, and finally a kind of twisted, bitter acceptance that maybe life before was the lie, and life now, as much as he despises it, is the truth.
Part of the skill of the film is in remaining compelling while the trajectory of proceedings is just so pessimistic. Jafaari begins as a kind of perfect model of a good citizen, an Arab whose closest friends are Jewish Israelis, who responds with calm and professionalism even when patients dying on his surgery table are demanding he be replaced with a non-Arab doctor. At the start of the film he is essentially the embodiment of a hopeful, integrationist ideal which is able to exist across two worlds, but by the end he can be at home in neither. And further, on a personal level, his loving relationship is revealed to have been undermined by a warren of lies, and the person he believed he knew best he discovers he didn't know at all. No solutions are offered, no real reasons are given, and Jafaari's stubborn belief that his intelligence and compassion can somehow trump centuries of emotive conflicts is shown to be hubris.
Some may have a problem that the film's central question "Why did she do it?" remains largely unanswered. But the unknowability of her motives is precisely the point; while we're allied to Jafaari's point of view, there will never be a way for us to wholly understand hers, and so his wife exists in a series of flashback glimpses, that tantalize with the possibility of explaining her actions, but of course, never actually do. In this way, a subtext of gender politics emerges too, amid all the ethnic politics: part of Jafaari's undoing is the revelation that his wife, as well as he treated her, had agency of her own. And quite apart from the devastating form it takes, we do get the sense that her capacity for completely autonomous thought and activity is in itself a source of bitter resentment to Jafaari: here again he is not the man he thought he was. On both a political and a personal level, the film is pessimistic, yes, but it feels truthful, and never lapses into easy cynicism.
Lead actor Ali Suliman (who also starred in 2005’s “Paradise Now”) is charismatic and compelling in the role of Jafaari, but this really is a tour de force for director Ziad Doueiri. It's only his third feature, though he worked as an assistant cameraman on several Quentin Tarantino pictures, and it feels like he was paying a lot of attention; it's unusual for a filmmaker so adept with the tropes and rhythms of Hollywood cinema to put that expertise to work in service of a narrative about the Middle East. What results is a film very much aimed at (and we hope destined to find) a Western audience, that is surefooted and fearless even as it ventures deeper and deeper into the dark heart of one of the most defining and complex conflicts of our time. [A-]