"The Attack" rewards your patience. Though it's never less than involving, it grows in stature as it unfolds and ends as a more subtle and disturbing film about love, loss and tragedy than we might initially expect.
Co-written and directed by Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri ("West Beirut") and set in Israel and the Palestinian territories, "The Attack's" seemingly straightforward title can be read two different yet complementary ways.
The most obvious approach concerns a physical attack, the suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv restaurant that kills 19 and causes painful chaos for everyone in this film.
But as written by Doueiri and Joelle Touma from a bestselling novel by Yasmina Khadra, "The Attack" can also be seen as referring to a full-out assault on everything the film's protagonist, Israeli Palestinian surgeon Amin Jaafari, believes he knows about his own life.
Amin ("Paradise Now's" Ali Suliman) is introduced saying goodbye to his wife, Siham (Reymond Amsalem), who is leaving their Tel Aviv home for a short trip to the territories to visit family. "I love you so much," she says, and it's clear he feels the same.
Later that same day, Amin, who turns out to be a gifted doctor, is getting what's later referred to as a "medical Oscar," a top award from the Israeli Society of Surgeons. It's the first time an Arab has won this honor in 41 years, but Amin, who admits to having been ambivalent about his status in Israel, now says, "I'm looking forward to the next 20 years."
That tranquillity is shattered the next day by that suicide bombing, with Amin, a caring man as well as a top surgeon, consumed by the struggle to save lives. Even in the operating room, however, ethnic tensions surface: One of the victims hysterically refuses to let an Arab treat him.
Siham is not waiting for Amin when he returns home and does not answer her cellphone, but he is not worried. Then comes a call at 3:20 a.m. from a policeman Amin knows, telling him to come to the hospital immediately but not to rush.
Amin is taken to the morgue and asked to identify the shocking remains of a body. It is, without doubt, his wife. But worse is yet to come: Because of the nature of her wounds and other circumstantial evidence, the police are convinced that Siham was not simply a victim, she was in fact the bomber.
Amin cannot believe this. He tells police interrogator Capt. Moshe (a bullheaded Uri Gavriel) that this simply is not possible, that his wife is Christian, not Muslim, and that there was not a hint of anything like this in the couple's 15 years of marriage.
A sarcastic screamer and very much a bully, Moshe mocks and castigates Amin and even suggests that he may be part of the bomb plot. It's a sequence that verges on being overdone and points up the gritty, melodramatic tone of the film's first half. Director Doueiri worked as camera operator on three of Quentin Tarantino's films, and given that credit, the pulpy quality of "The Attack's" first part might come naturally.
But even while the film is pushing too hard, we stay with it because we sense that there is something more delicate and significant brewing just underneath the surface, a quality that emerges as the story progresses.
The police's public announcement that Siham, a member of a privileged elite, was the bomber, wreaks havoc with Amin's life. His co-workers start a petition to strip him of his citizenship, the case becomes fodder for radio talk shows, and only Kim, a Russian colleague (Evgenia Dodina), sticks by him.
Unable to believe that his wife (whose genuinely loving relationship with him we see in frequent flashbacks) ended her life this way, Amin decides to make a rare visit back to the Palestinian territories, where he and Siham have relatives, determined to find out the truth about her involvement.
But if "The Attack" has detective story elements, this is only part of the story. The more Amin investigates, the more he talks to people and immerses himself again in the world of his childhood ("It must be strange to live among them," a cab driver says of Amin's Tel Aviv life), the more complex and hard to categorize his reality becomes.
What is most impressive about "The Attack" is its ability to be sympathetic to all sides and especially to Amin, who finds himself stranded in the middle. Alive to the pain everyone feels, the film captures, as well as drama can, the nuances of a problem that defies solution.
Though it faces a potential Arab League ban, "The Attack" is far too sophisticated to see its situation in black and white. This is finally not a film about what Siham did or did not do but rather about the psychological journey Amin takes and the justice it does to emotional ambiguities and the unknowability of human nature is genuinely heartbreaking.
MPAA rating: Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles; Town Center 5, Encino; Playhouse, Pasadena; University Town Center, Irvine.