It’s not clear if The Attack thinks itself a thriller or if writer-director Ziad Doueiri set out to film a meandering, provocative waking dream that represents the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without resolving them. If the former, the film is an abject failure. If the latter, it’s an intriguing and well-acted film, guilty only of slightly overstaying its welcome. Either way, it’s something for film schools to use as an exemplar in courses on editing and composition (and as a cautionary tale for directors too enamored with the “dutch tilt” and writers too enamored with Dialogue Fraught With Deeper Meaning).
The Attack centers on both Dr. Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), a famous surgeon who we meet as he’s becoming the first Arab in 41 years to receive a major Israeli medical prize, and his wife Siham (Reymond Amsalem). As Jaafari lunches with his Jewish colleagues atop their hospital — and politely ignores one doctor’s unsubtle nudges that he should leave the country to live among his own — there’s a distant explosion. Doueiri doesn’t show the restaurant suicide bombing, but you see its aftermath: a parade of gurneys carrying mauled children into Jaafari’s hospital, and one that bears a sheet-covered mass far too small to be a body.
That mass turns out to be Siham, in a brutal sequence where Jaafari is called back into the hospital after going home unaware not only that she was killed in the bombing, but also that she was the police’s #1 suspect. Jaafari is interrogated for roughly three days, and upon his release, he sets out for the West Bank city of Nablus to visit estranged family and to trace Siham’s radicalization.
All this has the potential to be exciting and tense, but Doueiri doesn’t imbue it with those qualities. Viewers with a passing familiarity with the conventions of film narrative will see heavyhanded foreshadowing of what Jaafari discovers in Nablus littered throughout the film’s first half-hour. Were this the story of a widow playing detective who seeks to unravel a conspiracy, the way Doueiri tips his hand would be a big problem. But Siham’s guilt is only in doubt for roughly the first half-hour, and the final 90 minutes of the film center on his grief, his conflicting loyalties, and his determination not to fuel the conflict between his people and what he views as his adoptive country.
Suliman’s work as Jaafari is solid if unremarkable, while Doueiri’s direction is quite conventional, but well executed. At its best, The Attack takes on Jaafari’s messy knot of grief and fury at his dead wife with a melancholy grace, linking the doctor’s memories of Siham to his present through elegant, austere cinematography. When Jaafari sits in a dark room, Doueiri shows memories that took place in dim light. When Jaafari stands in slanting afternoon sunbeams, the flashbacks Doueiri conjures come from sunny afternoon corners of memory. Dominique Marcombe’s editing choices stand out most in those sequences, but throughout the film, they provide cohesion and forward momentum without which The Attack would probably collapse under its own weight. Marcombe’s choices — matching or reversing angles, establishing and mastering a steady, mournful pace of jump cuts, smashing quickly from long shots of landscape to closeups of the edge of a table or the corner of a picture frame — highlight the best of cinematographer Tommaso Fiorilli’s work and mute the worst of it.
In the end, though, it’s all a Rorschach blot. The film’s themes get rolled out right away in Jaafari’s speech at the awards ceremony: “Isn’t it time you reexamined your own certainties?” he says. Doueiri clearly wants the audience to grapple with the brutality and shaky moral ground on each side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But like that on-the-nose line in Jaafari’s speech, which is conspicuously and jarringly cut in such a way that it feels unnatural to the moment, the good intentions and high-minded conversation-starting desires of the film threaten to drown the entire project.