The best thing about The Attack, an adaptation of Yasmina Khadra’s novel from Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueri, is its presentation of the attack itself. Each time a bomb explodes in Israel, most citizens must experience it as a faraway thud, and that’s just how this one registers to the hero, an Arab-Israeli surgeon (Ali Suliman), as he’s relaxing on a balcony during his lunch break. Granted, the choice may have been primarily budget-driven—big explosions are expensive—but it perfectly captures the everyday horror of such events, reinforcing the sense of futility they instill. Everybody gets up and wanders over to the edge of the balcony, trying to work out where it went off, but there’s nothing they can do—that is, not until the wounded start arriving in ambulances. Suliman is soon so busy attempting to save lives that he fails to notice when his wife’s badly mutilated corpse gets wheeled right past him. And the shock of discovering that she’s dead is immediately compounded by Shin Bet’s insistence that she was the suicide bomber.
Telling this story from the point of view of the perpetrator’s anguished, bewildered spouse is an inspired idea, and it may work very well in Khadra’s book. Suliman, however, is the wrong actor for the job. (He was equally miscast in Paradise Now, playing a potential suicide bomber.) His performance isn’t bad, exactly, but it remains on the text’s surface level, communicating one emotion at a time—whatever the scene seems to obviously call for, whether that’s anger, grief, confusion, or (what the hell) more anger. Doueiri uses flashbacks of Suliman and his wife (Reymonde Amsellem) as an all-purpose window into the character’s conflicted state of mind (presumably replacing an interior monologue), but the role demanded someone capable of challenging the audience’s assumptions about how a person in this circumstance would react. Instead, the film just doggedly follows him as he travels from Tel Aviv to a small Arab village in search of answers, and the deeper he gets, the more problematic his lack of complexity becomes.
Neither Doueiri nor Khadra (who’s French-Algerian) necessarily has a political agenda, and reviews of the novel suggest that it’s as much philosophical inquiry as narrative. All the same, as dramatized here, The Attack skirts perilously close to being an apologia for suicide bombing. Seeking to understand the motivations of a bomber is one thing, but the journey Suliman experiences consistently paints his dead wife as a conscientious freedom fighter and Suliman himself as a traitor to his people; even when an Israeli colleague voices the opposing view, it’s in a way that arrogantly suggests he should be grateful to the country for having allowed him to achieve some measure of professional success. Perhaps Khadra meant this as a provocation. Without a great actor to modulate the tone, however, it plays as propaganda.