A Secret Life – ‘The Attack’ muses on both suicide bombing and marriage

Siham (Reymond Amsalem) and Amin (Ali Suliman) embrace Cohen Media photo
Siham (Reymond Amsalem) and Amin (Ali Suliman) embrace
Cohen Media photo

Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul, who lived a sort of double life — one as an officer in the Algerian military, and the other as a writer of short stories and novels. When the incompatibility became too strong, he left the military. “The Attack” from 2005 was a major seller, especially in France, and now director Ziad Doueiri has brought this tale to the screen in a slightly airbrushed version. Before Mr. Doueiri made his own films, he worked in the camera department on the majority of Quentin Tarantino’s pre-“Kill Bill” output.

From this experience, Mr. Doueri learned a lot about pacing, but has left behind Mr. Tarantino’s post-modernism and obsession with revenge. Instead, Mr. Doueri — who first impressed with his film “West Beirut” — has more real-life experience in revenge and endless cycles of recrimination.

So this film is a good match. It opens with successful surgeon Amin (Ali Suliman) accepting an award at the Tel Aviv hospital where he works. As he tells the crowd, he is the first Arab to win, but years of treating both Jews and Arabs have kept him a humanist. We’re all one when it comes to the operating table.

Of course, Amin and his wife, Siham (Reymond Amsalem), live a life more sheltered than that of most Arabs in the region. But a suicide bomb rips up a restaurant later that day, and one of the bodies turns out to be Amin’s wife. Because of the state of her body the police can only assume one thing: She had to be the bomber.

These are rough scenes that actor Mr. Suliman handles superbly: honest, but without exploitative melodrama. The Israeli police rough him up, interrogate him. He vouches for her innocence. She was a Christian, not an Muslim, he says. That’s the best disguise, say the police.

The first half of “The Attack” combines grief with mystery. If the wife did kill herself, why? “The Attack” strings us along a bit until the second half, where Amin sets out to his uncle’s house in the town of Nablus in the West Bank. He wants to find the sheik who may have brainwashed his wife. Everybody thinks Amin is working undercover for Shin Bet, or at least is being used by them to infiltrate a radical sect. Already, posters of his wife, now a martyr for the cause, have been plastered all over the city.

“The Attack” never slacks, and Amin’s journey into darkness to hunt down an elusive truth feels like a microcosm of searching for answers in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Amin’s journey sometimes turns into fantasy, as his dead wife appears by his side.

Mr. Khadra’s novel is a bit edgier than the film. Amin descends into alcoholism and his journey takes on a masochistic edge, as he routinely gets beaten up as he tries to find answers. Whether staying truer to the novel would have been detrimental to the story is debatable. Mr. Doueiri opts for unanswered questions, and is more fascinated with how couples can love each other yet keep secret lives. And that makes “The Attack” a fascinating film and another twist on an age-old conflict.

‘The Attack’
* * * 1/2
Starring: Ali Suliman, Evgenia Dodena, Reymond Amsalem
Length: 102 minutes
Rating: R for some violent images, language and brief sexuality
Playing at: Plaza de Oro

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