Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review - The Attack

March 13, 2014

The Attack – 2012, Lebanon

How well do we know the ones we love? That question is at the heart of Ziad Doueiri’s powerful film The Attack, and for Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), the answer to that question is both jarring and heart-wrenching. Amin is a doctor who lives and works in Israel. He gets along well with his co-workers and is so respected by his peers that towards the beginning of the film, he is presented with a rather prestigious award. It is, in a way, one of the most important moments of his life, for it represents the culmination of so many things – his decision to pursue medicine, his decision to work in Israel, his turning the check to patients who refuse to be examined by him, and his ignoring of snide comments and derisive jeers. It is a moment that says as much about his skills with his hands as it does about his ability to persevere and triumph in the face of adversity. However, watching him closely, we get the sense that he isn’t enjoying it as much as he should be. Perhaps that is because his wife, Siham, is not there to share the moment with him. A day after the award ceremony, a suicide bomber sets off an explosive in a packed restaurant in Nazareth. Seventeen people die – eleven of them children. Siham (Reymond Amsalem) is said to have been the bomber.

Siham is the film’s great enigma, the specter that hangs over every character, weighing them down with guilt and confusion, unleashing the beast in some and the charity in others. The film opens with her in her husband’s arms, tears streaming down her cheek. She tells him she loves him. He tells her, “Every time you leave, a part of me dies.” These words reverberate throughout the film, and by the time they are repeated, they have been given a new, much more somber meaning than was originally intended.

The film is a reminder that to some acceptance does not always equate to belonging, and as the film progresses, we are made to wonder just how warmly Amin really was received by his peers and society as a whole. Early in the film, we watch as an Israeli officer repeatedly shines his flashlight in Amin’s face while checking his ID, and I couldn’t help wondering if it was truly necessary. Hasn’t Amin been going to the same spot on his way home from work for years? Shouldn’t someone recognize him by now? After the bombing, things get worse for Amin, and his incarceration and subsequent interrogation include tactics that have been labeled as human rights abuses. This is one of the lasting consequences of terrorism – the tendency to resort to tactics that you would criticize others for engaging in.

Through flashbacks, we see Amin and Siham in happier times, and as the film progresses, earlier moments take on a significance that they don’t have the first time we see them. Tears of joy become possible tears of sorrow, and remarks that seem like passing comments must be rethought and wrestled with. In the process, we, along with Amin, are forced to rethink all that we know about the seemingly gentle woman he was married to for fifteen years. A lesser film would have been content to draw traditional lines of good and evil. However, The Attack resists this, instead opting to try to make its audience understand what drives people to commit terrible acts. In this way, Doueiri is similar to Hany Abu-Assad, whose 2005 masterpiece Paradise Now presented a realistic look at two young men’s decision to become suicide bombers. By the end of that film, audiences grasped the situation without condoning the protagonists’ decision. Here, Doueiri works with a similar intention, and the results are the same: We understand without forgiving.

Eventually, as all films of this kind must, Amin sets out in search of answers. Yet even here, the film never relinquishes its realistic feel. Unlike other films in which non-detectives decide to get to bottom of things, Amin does not suddenly sprout into a master detective, and where his investigation takes him reveals an astonishing amount about the world on the other side of the fence that divides Israel and the Palestinian Territories. There, we see, nothing is simple. Good people can hate, bad people can be kind, killers can be made into martyrs, and sermons that preach intolerance and violence are praised as signifying the country’s resilience. At the end of the day, nothing changes. A poster rises and falls; another will soon take its place. And more people will likely die on both sides. The cycle never ends, and everyone is tired of it.

The Attack is shocking, moving, and compelling. It is a film which viewers will want to talk about long after it is over. Its one real misstep occurs early when it foreshadows too much too soon. It also unwisely insists on answering all of the mysteries it creates, for if ever ambiguity should be acceptable, it is in a film of this nature. However, even this aspect of the film is hard to completely criticize, for in revealing everything, new details are revealed, details that once again pull the strings on our emotions and saddle us with complex question and uneasy emotions. Perhaps it could all have been prevented. (on DVD in Region 1)

4 stars

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