Terrorist attacks like the Marathon bombings arouse a common response — what were they thinking? How could anyone consider that a good idea? In “The Attack,” Dr. Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman) wonders the same as he treats the wounded from a suicide bombing in which 17 have been killed, including 11 children.
But soon the question becomes more than theoretical: Jaafari’s wife, Siham (Reymonde Amsellem), was the bomber. Though director Ziad Doueiri’s uneven treatment of this provocative premise suffers from contrivance and implausibility, it nonetheless arouses profound questions about fanaticism, cultural identity, and the essential mystery of other people, even those we think we know best.
When first seen, Jaafari is receiving a prestigious award for his service, and in his acceptance speech he describes how his attitude toward people he had once considered his enemies has altered, and how events occur that can overturn “every certitude.” That’s for sure. Once the police determine that his wife was responsible for the attack, Jaafari’s privileged status is inverted, and he has gone from a recipient of a “medical Oscar,” as his brutal Shin Bet interrogator puts it, to a terrorist suspect undergoing enhanced interrogation in an Abu Ghraib-like prison. Then the authorities inexplicably release him, and though exonerated, he still endures a mixed reception from his Israeli friends, and an obsessive need to find out how the woman he loved for 15 years could have committed the unthinkable.
His search takes him back, via clumsy flashbacks, to key moments in their relationship, including a bliss montage of happier times and moments that seemed innocent at the time but are less so in retrospect. Even less convincing and enlightening are the dead woman’s ghostly, imaginary visitations. When Jaafari decides to investigate on his own, and look for answers in refugee camps and in Palestinian grievances, his quest brings him closer to the truth, though no closer to understanding it. Such is human nature. But Doueiri doesn’t help by contriving a conspiracy that seems far-fetched and, when it comes to the questions that really matter, explains nothing.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.