Amin (Ali Suliman) has it all. He's a highly respected Arab doctor in Tel Aviv and he's married to the passionate, loving and beautiful Siham (Reymonde Amsellem). An unexpected tragedy involving a terrorist bombing flings him into a state of shock and sadness that's compounded further when he's interrogated by a relentlessly cruel agent of the Israeli Secret Police. Long assimilated into Israel, Amin obsessively embarks upon an odyssey into the West Bank Palestinian territory of Nablus to face family and discover the truth, no matter how painful it will be.
The Attack Dir. Ziad Doueiri (2013) *****
Starring: Ali Suliman, Reymonde Amsellem, Karim Saleh,
Evgenia Dodina, Uri Gaviel
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"Even if a husband lives 200 fucking years, he'll never discover his wife's true nature. I may be able to understand the secrets of the universe, but... I'll never understand the truth about you. Never."
- Marlon Brando as Paul in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris
The aforementioned lines of dialogue that Marlon Brando's Paul utters in reference to his recently deceased wife in Bertolucci's masterpiece, kept crossing my mind while watching Ziad Doueiri's superb new film The Attack.
For much of the picture's running time we experience a love story so romantic, so intense, so moving, that the questions nagging at its lead character Amin (Ali Suliman) are, for a good chunk of the proceedings, the same questions that keep plaguing us as we follow his story. As he needs answers, so do we and director Doueiri creates a mise-en-scene that plunges us into Amin's world so deeply that we miss all the clues that he misses and when he begins to finally see them, recall them and understand them, he does so with a clarity that asks even more questions.
This movie is an extraordinary piece of work. The very canny use of questions being answered with more questions is indicative of how superb Doueiri's direction is and why his fine screenplay, co-authored with Joelle Touma and based on the novel by Yasmina Khadra, has served as an exquisite template for a picture that haunts us long after the lights have come up.
What we know for sure is that Amin loves his gorgeous wife Siham (Amsellem) so passionately that he accepts, albeit a bit grudgingly, her decision to deal with a family matter out of town even though she won't be present when he receives the most prestigious honour of his life. Disappointment gives way to deference to her free spirit. It is, after all, one of the many things he loves her for and so it will be that Amin moves on. He attends the swanky testimonial to his vast achievements with his colleague and best friend Kim (Evgenia Dodina), a Jewish doctor who not only respects him as one of Tel Aviv's leaders in the field of medicine, but clearly carries a torch she knows Amin will never accept. His devotion to Siham is unmatched - except, perhaps, by his love for healing.
This is a man who has been welcomed with open arms into the very fabric of Israeli society. This Arab's assimilation is so complete that he not only (and genuinely) feels like a proud citizen of Israel, but indeed holds Israeli citizenship. Amin is an Arab in a world where Arabs exist separately, or at least peripherally from Jews.
Not so for Amin. He is an outsider no more.
At least not for the present. It doesn't, however, take too long for him to go from being a man who feels he is no longer a stranger in a strange land to becoming a stranger in his own land; a land he mistakenly thought he had the inalienable right to call his own.
When Amin and his colleagues are in the hospital cafeteria having lunch, the residual effects of euphoria from the awards ceremony continue to permeate the world of the film until it's shattered by the horrendous sound of a nearby explosion. This is a sound that will change Amin's life forever.
He and his colleagues rush to the windows overlooking downtown Tel-Aviv, and we, like the film's characters, know full well what has happened. The doctors leap into action. Victims of the blast will be rushed to their very hospital. It's a truly horrific moment. As viewers, we are irrevocably thrown into the horrendous reality of life in Israel, one in which every moment of every person's life is a moment wherein a terrorist could strike and take down the innocent.
This will not be the only shocker in the film.
After several tense hours in the emergency room tending to victims of a suicide bombing, a weary, sleep-bereft Amin is summoned to the morgue. In what feels like a chilly, surreal nightmare, a metal slab is pulled from the cooler and he sees a body covered with a sheet that is clearly that of a head and its upper trunk. The cover is removed. In shock, he does what he's been summoned to do. He identifies the body of his beloved wife Siham who has died in the suicide bombing.
The nightmare doesn't end here. In his state of grief, he's dragged into a holding tank and subjected to the most horrendous "enhanced" interrogation (most of us call it torture) at the hands of a merciless, terse, poker-faced, bullet-headed Israeli secret service agent (Uri Gaviel) who insanely suspects Amin has had something to do with the bombing or can divulge pertinent information about it. From this point forward, we're gripped by the journey Amin is forced to undertake and as an audience, we are plunged headlong into his need to discover the truth.
The Attack is finally as much about getting to the bottom of a mystery as it is about a man going back to his roots and being forced to reexamine who he is, what he left behind, what he ultimately rejected and most tellingly how he is viewed by those who once accepted him with open arms. What finally trumps the thriller elements, though, yielding a drama of the most harrowing kind is his life with and love for his wife which, the filmmakers present in a series of flashbacks.
These memories of bygone days act as tent posts to the sequences in which Amin visits the Palestinian territory to try and contact the terrorists, question his own family and ignore the fact that he's placing himself in harm's way. As Amin wends through the shadowy, serpentine maze of Nablus territory on the West Bank, his shock and incredulity is tempered by memories of the woman he loved and the rich, passionate life they had together. Sadly, if not tragically, the memories do not fade into a wash of sentimentality, but instead present elements of clarity that are as deeply romantic as they are heartbreaking.
There is a precise, almost detached coldness to everything in the film other than the flashbacks, but it is this powerful directorial approach which gives way to both Amin and the audience being able to discover truths about the love of his life that do not inspire anger, but rather, release the feelings of frustration he (and in fact, so many in the audience) must face about how much in life is mediated by overlooking clues that would otherwise expose the terrible, awful truth.
There isn't a single element out of place here. The writing and direction are at the highest levels of skill and artistry and the film overflows with superb performances and first-rate production value (most notably the stunning cinematography of Tommaso Fiorilli, the breathtaking cutting of editor Dominique Marcombe and last, but not least, an astonishingly moving and evocative score by composer Éric Neveux).
This is not a film, finally, about placing blame. It exposes the futility of war, the joy and heartbreak of love and the very notion of nationhood and its link to personal identity within the context of rejecting roots, seeking to assimilate and how desperately we all seek acceptance in a world that pays only lip service to the notion of who we really are and instead expects us to be what it wants us to be. I hesitate to use the word "ambiguity" to describe this rich and powerful film. It leaves us with a myriad of questions by the end - questions that might not yield easy answers, if any at all.
It's not unlike the narrative of life. We experience an affecting story about how important it is to always ask questions - to avoid keeping our heads in the sand, to avoid allowing prejudices to blind us and finally, to never accept surface truths as to what, in actuality, lurks deep with the psyches of our individual and collective souls. This is our world. It belongs to all of us. The borders of prejudice residing within our hearts and minds hold us back, but indeed, the imaginary borders of nationhood make it so difficult for so many to embrace diversity instead and allow these differences to be the ties that bind.
"The Attack" is available on a gorgeously transferred Blu-Ray and DVD combo pack available via D-Films. The extra features are too light for fans of added value items - a trailer and a somewhat disappointingly conducted interview by Richard Pena with director Doueiri are all she wrote on that front, but ultimately, it's the movie that really counts, and this is a movie that serious cinema aficionados will want to own. It's a movie that demands and holds up magnificently on repeated viewings.