The surgeon is Dr. Amin Jaafiri (Ali Suliman), and the film begins with his acceptance of a distinguished medical award, the first time an Arab has been presented with it in 41 years. The next day, a suicide bomber strikes in Tel Aviv, killing 17. Jaafiri's wife Siham is not only killed in the carnage but also implicated as the assailant.
That's impossible to stomach for Jaafiri, a man who had no inkling of his wife's private zealotry. But his initial certainties that the police are mistaken and that Siham is innocent crumble when he receives a posthumous letter admitting her involvement. Thus unmoored, Jaafiri travels to the heart of the West Bank to track down her provocateurs.
The film is based on a novel by a French-Algerian writing under the name Yasmina Khadra. One suspects that it's an incredibly compelling read, told from the perspective of a man emotionally ripped asunder. Questions of identity in that part of the world are just so much more complicated and salient — and with so much more on the line — than here in the states, where questions of identity sometimes feel about as important as what shoes go best with our new jeans.
In the portrayal of Dr. Jaafiri, though, Ali Suliman is almost too internal to register on the screen. It's a restrained performance and feels true to the cruel, impossible weight of his journey. But as leading man and tour guide, he's lacking in charisma. His emotional roller coaster — and the film itself — is one without much thrill or velocity.
Much like Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, The Attack relies on piecemeal flashbacks to texturize Siham. The device is a deft way to continually juxtapose Jaafiri's version of his wife with the version he slowly assembles after her death. But Siham's character is the film's most problematic.
The Attack doesn't quite celebrate suicide bombing, but it basically endorses terror as a legitimate and viable means of political action. Some critics have called the book "polemic," and the film has already been banned in Lebanon, so it's one that, if nothing else, inspires controversy and serious reflection. The film's hottest dialogue, between Jaafiri and the sheik preaching jihad, presents what appear to be two equally persuasive sides, and Jaafiri returns to Tel-Aviv a changed man.
The film is a thoughtful meditation, and drifts close enough to propaganda to generate some really animated late-night conversations. In this case, those conversations will almost certainly be more exciting — if not more radical — than the film which provoked them. The movie opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre.