Reymonde Amsellem and Ali Suliman in THE ATTACK (Cohen Media Group)

Reymonde Amsellem and Ali Suliman in THE ATTACK (Cohen Media Group)

Directed by Ziad Doueiri
Produced by Jean Bréhat & Rachid Bouchareb
Written by Doueiri & Joëlle Touma, based on the novel L’Attentat by Yasmina Khadra
Released by Cohen Media Group
Lebanon/France/Qatar/Belgium. 102 min. Rated R
Arabic & Hebrew with English subtitles
With Ali Suliman, Reymonde Amsellem, Evgenia Dodina, Uri Gavriel, Karim Saleh, Dvir Benedek, Ruba Salameh & Ramzi Maqdisi

The Attack is fiction, but it has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, what with the news full of educated, radicalized terrorists killing civilians, like a so-called fifth column spreading paranoia in modern cities.

In Tel Aviv, Dr. Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), an accomplished surgeon, is treated condescendingly as a beneficiary of affirmative action for receiving the scholarship that plucked him out as the brightest kid in his Arab-Israeli village, and for becoming the first Arab-Israeli recipient of a scientific research award, which he proudly displays in his modern, well-appointed house. He has one disappointment—his Christian social worker wife of 15 years, Siham (Reymonde Amsellem), doesn’t attend his award ceremony. Instead, she’s visiting her grandfather in northern Israel (or so he thinks).

Amin’s the kind of professional too rarely seen in films, a secular, bilingual, Ramadan-ignoring Muslim. His best friends are Israeli Jews—Moshe, a burly police captain (Uri Gavriel), and a mature medical colleague. At work, he politely yields to crass prejudice from patients and co-workers. Saving lives in the emergency room is his first priority. However, a nearby explosion fills the E.R. with bloodied boys and girls, and will burst his bubble of complacency. His dream life turns into a nightmare when a middle-of-the-night call from Moshe brings him to the morgue to identify another body found in the wreckage—his wife. The film turns from pointed social criticism into an absorbing mystery as Amin grapples with denial and tries to understand his wife—whether she was some kind of psychopath (or martyr).

His detective-like quest retracing her steps is matched by his emotional search through his sifted memories, depicted in sensual flashbacks of what he thought was a happy relationship. The director Ziad Doueiri claims he had to (controversially) cast an Israeli-Moroccan actress because no Palestinian would consent to the glimpses of nudity. (The Israeli co-stars and the film’s sympathy for young Israeli victims of the bombing got the film banned by the Arab League, and the native country of Doueiri, Lebanon, refused to submit it for its Oscar submission.)

The fraught perspective of Arab-Israelis gets a bit awkwardly abandoned from the source novel, written by Algerian ex-military officer Mohammed Moulessehoul under the regendered nom de plume Yasmina Khadra. Doueiri and his co-writer, wife Joëlle Touma, change the ending and the gradual revelation of the wife’s motivation, shifting the focus away from the post-1948 repercussions within Israel to the contemporary resentments of the occupied West Bank. They also add a religious twist that departs from stereotypes. With the focus on Amin following his wife’s trail towards those who would use her for their purposes, the film becomes a gripping political thriller and a disturbing warning about the fire next time.