Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Good Arab

Ali Suliman in The Attack

The Attack (2012, directed by Ziad Doueiri) takes a difficult subject and crafts a noir thriller around it. In doing so, it runs rings around other more "serious" films that attempt to tackle the subject of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict directly and winds up going beyond the politics into realms of epistemology. "Who are we really?" this movie asks, "and how well does anyone know anyone?" It's a dark film, a pessimistic film. It's utterly riveting.

The hero of The Attack is one Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman), a well-respected doctor in Tel Aviv. When we meet him, he's on the eve of receiving a humanitarian award, the first Arab ever to win it. Just as he's readying to accept the award, he gets a phone call from his wife. "I can't talk now," he tells her. It's a brief exchange, one he later comes to regret. The next day, a suicide bomber attack sends dozens of victims to Amin's hospital, and he treats them as best he can. After a long day of horrors, he goes home to find his wife still away. His nephew, Adel drops by to pick up some stuff he left there while he was staying over. Amin thinks nothing of it until he's called into the hospital. It seems that his wife, Siham, was the bomber. His life shatters. In the midst of his grief, he's taken into custody by the Shabak under suspicion of terrorism. Amin denies that his wife could possibly have been the bomber, a denial that rings more and more hollow as time wears on. He's ultimately cleared of involvement, but the eye is upon him. When he returns home, he finds a letter waiting for him from Siham that hammers home her guilt. Rather than turn the letter over to the Shabak, he follows it to Nablas, where Siham's family takes him in. In Nablas, Siham is revered as a martyr, much to his despair. Amin looks for the people who recruited her to become a bomber, and discovers uncomfortable things about not only his family and his people, but also his own place in Israeli society...

Ali Suliman in The Attack

The cinematic form of The Attack is film noir. You can see it immediately in the way it films its characters in deep shadows even during day-lit scenes and in the sleek, international noir way it films Tel Aviv and Nablas at night. This is of a piece with the way this film is structured as a mystery, with Amin as an amateur investigator who is out of his depth. Like many other such investigators before him, his journey into mystery winds up plunging him into dire self-discovery. If Cornell Woolrich had been an Israeli, this is the kind of film he might have written: its hero starts with a reasonable, stable, bourgeois life and has it stripped away as the curtain of reality is torn away and the chaos behind it is revealed. Like Woolrich and many another noir story, this is a movie that hinges on half-remembered details. Its a film that's littered with flashbacks that provide key details to the mystery. The forces of law and order in this film are more sinister than most, and Uri Gavriel's brutal Captain Moshe would be at home in a crime film made anywhere. The Attack even provides a villain in the person of the priest Amin eventually tracks down who lays out exactly why Siham did what she did. This is first and foremost an entertainment, and its form demands that you pay close attention to it rather than soak in some kind of ambient despair or outrage. It's a clever way of laying out the facts of the case in both Amin's personal apocalypse and the catastrophe of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict itself. The framework of film noir keeps the film from becoming didactic, even though at a basic level, it's totally didactic. This is a canny smuggler of a film.

And yet, this film goes out of its way to subvert its genre elements. Captain Moshe seems a monster, but he's not wrong when he describes the psychology of a terrorist. When he tells Amin that "something just snaps" in their heads, he's foreshadowing Adel saying that that's exactly what happened to Siham in a scene much later in the film. The Priest at the end who seems a villain (and, really probably is a villain) points out that his movement isn't a result of Islamism or radical Christianity and that oppressed peoples use the tools they have at hand. There's an unspoken jab at the history of Israel itself in this exchange, since many of Israel's founders were thought to be terrorists at one time, too. The scene that really lays out what is at The Attack's heart of darkness is near the end, where Amin's heretofore sympathetic colleague laments that she's disappointed that he didn't do the right thing and give the Shabak his evidence. There's an unspoken implication that she's disappointed that, having been given respect and status in Tel Aviv, he's no longer a "good" Arab, that she doesn't really know him anymore. The racism implicit in this scene is damning.

This is obviously an anti-war film, but its message along these lines is almost incidental to the existential crisis that war foists upon its hero. He starts the film with a place in the world. He knows who he is and where he fits. At the end of the film, everything that is central to his life: respect, stability, his very identity, has been stripped from him. At the end of the film, he's a man without a country and without a firm footing in the world. Most of the protagonists in films noir tend to suffer their downward spiral from some fatal flaw (film noir is the closest thing to Greek tragedy in film, after all). Anim's flaw is believing that he is exempt from racism, that he's the equal of his colleagues, that he's been granted the Israeli equivalent of white privilege. He hasn't, of course, and that's what pushes him off the edge of the cliff.


Marilyn said...

If we only knew how close we are to falling off the edge, we might be more careful how we step - and on whom. Great review of what sounds like a very compelling film.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Thanks again! The Attack was one of my favorites from last year. I wish it were getting more attention from end of the year lists and awards, but it's a crowded year this year.