The Attack: Telluride Review

Taut, engrossing film looks at the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

The film, from Lebanese-born director Ziad Doueiri, centers on a Palestinian surgeon who learns about his wife's secret life as a terrorist after she kills 17 people in a suicide bombing.

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Although the subject of Arab-Israeli tensions is almost a staple at film festivals, The Attack manages to find a unique and compelling slant on a well-worn theme. The latest film from Lebanese-born director Ziad Doueiri (Lila Says, West of Beirut) brings a pointed human focus to a subject drenched in anguish. This picture was a big draw in Telluride over the weekend, and it will be released by Cohen Media Group in the coming months, where it will face some resistance from audiences because of the painful subject matter.

The film begins on a deceptively quiet note, as Dr. Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), a Palestinian surgeon fully assimilated in Tel Aviv, is honored to be the first Arab ever to receive a coveted Israeli medical prize. He is eager to share the news with his wife Sihem (Reymonde Amsellem), but she is out of town visiting family members. Soon afterward, Amin is called to the hospital to assist the victims of a suicide bombing at a popular restaurant, which claimed 17 lives. But he is even more shocked when police inform him that the suicide bomber has been identified as his own wife. Hauled in for brutal questioning as a potential accomplice, Amin is quickly cleared of any complicity in the bombing, but then he must try to fathom his wife’s secret life as a terrorist.

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The first half of the movie unfolds masterfully, without a single false step. The scene in which Amin goes to the morgue to identify his wife’s body is brilliantly filmed, as he nervously approaches the covered body and then collapses when he recognizes her face. Scenes in which Amin is interrogated by unsympathetic Israeli officers build devastating tension. And Suliman’s eloquent performance as he moves from denial and incomprehension to the searing recognition of his wife’s double life is one of the strongest performances caught on film this year.

Once he receives a letter from his wife making her involvement in the bombing crystal clear, Amin begins a journey to Nablus to try to comprehend what led her down this mad path. As he reconnects with Palestinian family members and witnesses the harsh living conditions that his own privileged position kept at a safe distance, he struggles to understand his wife’s actions. These scenes are inherently fascinating but perhaps a bit more distended than the perfectly modulated early encounters. Doueiri and co-writer Joelle Touma made some significant changes to the best-selling novel by Yasmina Khadra, and this may account for the slight slackening of tension in the film’s second half. Still, Amin’s confrontations with a fierce Muslim sheik and an equally fanatical Christian cleric do have a chilling impact. The film’s deepest theme is really not political at all; it concerns the secrets that we keep even from the people closest to us. And as Amin’s odyssey leads him into ever more dangerous territory, he begins to question whether his own single-minded absorption in his successful career may have pushed his wife away when she most needed his support.

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The superb Suliman receives excellent support from a number of other cast members. Amsellem appears only in brief flashbacks, but she makes them register vividly. Evgenia Dodina and Dvir Benedek as Amin’s Jewish friends and Uri Gavriel as the harsh Israeli intelligence officer also contribute potent characterizations. Doueiri and his technical team bring immediacy to the scenes of violent clashes on the streets of Nablus, but intimate scenes are equally well handled by the director. Although the subject matter is inherently disturbing, it’s hard to imagine any audience remaining unmoved by this mournful tale.

Venue: Telluride Film Festival (Cohen Media Group)
Cast: Ali Suliman, Reymonde Amsellem, Evgenia Dodina, Uri Gavriel, Karim Saleh, Dvir Benedek
Director: Ziad Doueiri
Screenwriters: Ziad Doueiri, Joelle Touma
Based on the novel by: Yasmina Khadra
Producers: Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb
Executive producers: Amir Harel, Tony Copti
Director of photography: Tommaso Fiorilli
Production designer: Yoel Hertzberg
Music: Eric Neveux
Editors: Dominique Marcombe, Ziad Doueiri
No rating, 104 minutes