A well-esteemed Palestinian surgeon working in Israel is overtaken by an all-consuming need to comprehend seemingly inexplicable circumstances after learning that his wife died in a suicide bombing in “The Attack.” Fascinating in the sense that it covers the aftermath of an act of terror from the perspective of someone the bomber left behind, this streamlined adaptation of Yasmina Khadra’s bestselling novel strips the source of nearly all its profundity, focusing instead on the good doctor’s dangerous journey into the depths of the terrorist organization responsible. Prominent fall fest berths should clear the path somewhat for this tricky pic.
Inspired by a book that functions more effectively as a philosophical text than as a conventional narrative, “The Attack” inherently suffers from the transition to screen, which largely fails to convey the complex swirl of conflicting feelings that overtake Dr. Amin Jaafari (“Paradise Now’s” Ali Suliman) in the wake of his wife’s death. Though the tragedy drills all the way to the core of his being, the doctor is slow to realize it, overlooking valuable clues in the lead-up and immediate aftermath: The night before the bombing, while accepting a prominent medical award, he misses the opportunity to properly answer the final call from his wife Siham (Reymond Amsalem). And once the bomb goes off, he’s so busy operating on more than a dozen badly wounded Israeli children that he doesn’t notice Siham’s corpse being wheeled down the corridor behind him.
The onion-style storytelling analogy has seldom seemed more apt, as director Ziad Doueiri (“Lila Says”) reveals new twists one tear-inducing layer at a time. After that exhausting first day treating the victims, Jaafari receives a call asking him to return to the hospital to identify Siham’s body. Then the police inform him that her wounds are consistent with those of suicide bombers, suggesting it was no accident that she had been in that Tel Aviv restaurant, despite having told her husband she was away in Nazareth.
Subsequent revelations continue to shake Jaafari’s sense of what had seemed a perfect marriage. How could he, a man dedicated to preserving life, have unknowingly shared his home with someone capable of killing innocent children, no matter the cause?
This paradox between Hippocratic oath and jihadi pledge serves as the ideological tension at the heart of Khadra’s novel, but retreats into the background onscreen. Instead, “The Attack” becomes an implausible attempt to reconcile Salim’s actions, as her husband — a Palestinian Arab begrudgingly granted standing in Israeli society and therefore uniquely suited to pass freely among both cultures — puts his life at risk to confront the charismatic leader who inspired his wife’s suicide.
Denying much in the way of personal style, save for occasional flashbacks to the Jaafaris’ marriage, Doueiri clears the story of all subplots, resulting in a film that feels overlong and undernourished. Likewise, Eric Neveux’s score contributions are kept to a scant minimum, lest anything interfere with the task at hand. Though the effort is noble in its way, more introspection and less detective work likely would have elevated “The Attack” from provocation to revelation.