Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 10, 2013 3:53 pm 
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Irreconcilable differences

Ziyad Doueri's The Attack provides an obvious setup. When Amin Jaafari, a distinguished Palestinian surgeon in Tel Aviv, gets a major Israeli award, there is a terrorist bombing and his wife, killed in the incident, becomes the prime suspect. This is a complete shock to him.

We get the point: even a thoroughly assimilated Palestinian awarded a national honor by Israeli society still finds his security and sense of belonging hang by a thread. The doctor, after treating the injured, is himself a suspect and is held for brutal interrogation but later found innocent and released. His colleagues at the hospital nonetheless pass around a petition to strip him of his Israeli citizenship. But a few Israeli colleagues remain utterly loyal. Incredulous and now angry at his wife whom he seems no longer to know or understand, Dr. Jaafari goes to Nablus to investigate, at considerable personal risk, the sources of the bombing, starting with his own and his wife's family.

This is a setup to show Palestinian rage and the impossibility of a Palestinian's assimilating into Israeli society. But it's not a very obvious setup, after all, because this can't be a very typical case. Surely Palestinians who've won distinction in Tel Aviv don't turn out to have wives who are suicide bombers -- or do they? The point, anyhow, seems indisputable: that no amount of success in Israel can shield a Palestinian from the suffering and anger of his people or their violent manifestations. And if Doueri stretches his plotline to make this point, maybe he is entitled to do so -- at least given the fact that the atmosphere and language feel authentic, particularly during the scenes set in Palestinian towns. The film is adapted from a novel by Yasmina Khadra. In his review of the film Peter Debruge of Variety says it "strips the source of nearly all its profundity."

The film turns into a kind of police procedural, but one where the investigator is not a cop but a collateral victim. There are no big revelations. In fact The Attack presents a situation more than it tells a story. This is both its weakness and its strength. Like Antonioni's L'Avventura, about a disappeared person who is hunted for in vain, leading to a puzzlement so rich it was deemed "a new cinematic language," The Attack mostly just points to dead ends. But the desired effect is to leave the audience in a state of profound discomfort. Insofar as it achieves this The Attack is a success.

Ali Suliman, who plays the lead role of Doctor Jaafari, is qualified by his background, an actor of Palestinian origin bilingual in Hebrew and Arabic and educated in Tel Aviv, and he gives a committed performance. His previous credits include Paradise Now, The Kingdom and Lemon Tree. And he's busy: he has had seven credits since The Attack. Doueri is a Lebanese who has worked more than once as a cameraman for Quentin Tarantino. His directorial debut was with the (1998) West Beirut, a lively, vernacular account of growing up during the Lebanese civil war of 1975. His second feature was less successful, an adaptation of Lila Says, a sexy French novel set in Marseilles. The Attack works well enough in bringing out the basics of its difficult subject matter, but Doueri's transition to seriousness and political relevance isn't totally successful. Though this effort is relevant and well-intentioned, without the director's previous humor and sexiness, without much individual style, his filmmaking becomes a little bit stiff and generic, and Debruge thinks the film feels "overlong and undernourished." But Manohla Dargis of the NY Times has the opposite view, seeing this film as superior to its source book: "In contrast to the novel, which habitually slips into polemicism and is bookended by a shock that dilutes its punch, Mr. Doueiri creates characters, emotional colors and political contradictions that have the agonized sting and breathe of life." In any case, the film has the solid polemical value, for some a provocation, of taking a neutral stance neither pro nor con Israel, yet acknowledging the inevitability of Palestinian rage.

If viewers don't get the message that that rage is just around the corner even in a high ranking Palestinian surgeon's house, that's part of an ongoing problem. But it is certainly a serious misinterpretation to say as one reviewer, Mike D'Angelo of AV Club, does, that this film "skirts perilously close to being an apologia for suicide bombing," though his being able to say this may be a sign of how the film has lost its source novel's complexity. Anyhow, the film's value is precisely that it is not an apologia for anything. The film works insofar as it unfolds from the developing point of view of Dr. Jaafari -- his understanding changing as he reviews memories we see as flashbacks. He never really understands or sympathizes with suicide bombings. To learn that it's not so hard for a Palestinian to become a suicide bomber is not the same as advocating one's doing so. Dr. Jaafari realizes he's powerless when he finds pictures of his wife, whose action he despises, spread all over the Palestinian territories celebrating her as a patriotic heroine and martyr. He tears these posters down, but his effort is useless; they're everywhere.

The Attack/ الصدمة debuted at Telluride, then Toronto in Sept. 2012, with limited US theatrical release 21 June 2013. Screened for this review at Angelika Film Center, NYC. This was also scheduled as the centerpiece film at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 30 (Castro Theater, San Francisco) and Aug. 4 (California Theater, Berkeley).

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