Since it opens with a suicide bombing in downtown Tel Aviv, and since its mystery plot involves an attempt to track down a sheik whose public expectorations call for the slaughter of Israeli civilians, The Attack is most avowedly "about" terrorism. But that's a subject, not the subject. The film, an arresting and upsetting one, is also about love, trauma, and trust, both within one particular marriage and within entire cultures. There's an explosion (offscreen), much gumshoeing, and the most nerve-racking interrogation I've seen in ages, but this prickling thriller is too invested in life as it's lived to bother much with thrills — or even a traditional mystery. Not long after that blast kills 11 children we're told who did it. Director Ziad Doueiri, a perceptive humanist working from a (surprisingly bleaker) novel by Yasmina Khadra, instead digs into what the headlines about such damnable acts rarely bother with: the why.
That has an easy answer and an impossible one. While already banned in some Arab nations due to the Lebanese director's insistence on filming in Israel, and certain to stir up anger here and in Israel among audiences who mistake that humanism for excuse-making or equivalence-drawing, the film endorses nothing more controversial than the idea that it's worth our while to try to understand what could spur troubled souls to murder. Much of the drama could apply to the mothers of American school shooters.
Ali Suliman stars as Amin Jaafari, an Arab-Israeli surgeon so accepted in the Promised Land that when we first meet him he's being honored with an award from his colleagues, one we're told no Arab has ever previously received. The next day, that bombing kills 17 civilians, and we see Jaafari in impressive E.R. mode, slicing open burn tissue and pounding on chests to reignite heartbeats. (One wounded victim, recognizing Jaafari's heritage, demands a different doctor.) Soon, he is summoned before a Shin Bet investigator, who insists that Jaafari must have been involved in some way — after all, the suicide bomber appears to have been his wife.
Despite the political urgency — the interrogator tells Jaafari his case has "destroyed all of the trust Israel has for its Arab citizens" — the film's heart is in wrong-man thriller plotting, mixed up with those chestnuts torn-between-worlds and "I married a whatnow?" Jaafari argues that his wife was born a Christian; the interrogator snaps back, "A true convert! She really had to prove herself." Later, when Jaafari sets out for the Palestinian territories to track down the men he believes must have brainwashed her, everyone he meets assumes he's working for the Israelis, even members of his family.
The answers he turns up are as inevitable as they are inconclusive. We discover which particular controversy radicalized her, but neither Jaafari nor the movie makes much of that. Much more elusive is how his wife developed the capacity to do what she has done — both to kill and to hide her ferocious beliefs from her deeply secular spouse. Through romantic flashbacks and a couple pieces of surprising evidence, we apprehend something of who she was, right up to the day of her martyrdom. The most frightening thing in the movie — maybe in the movies this year — is her loving decency.