Film Review: The Insult

Lebanon’s official bid for the Foreign-Language Oscar is another powerful, superbly performed contemporary drama from Ziad Doueiri.
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Arriving on the heels of some awards and important festival stopovers (Toronto, Telluride, Venice, with co-lead Kamel El Basha taking Venice’s Best Actor nod), The Insult is set in a modern Beirut that has survived wars but now endures pressures brought by an influx of Palestinians residing in nearby refugee camps. Herein lies the film’s absorbing story of a journey—not of refugee travels, but that of an unexpectedly explosive remark and denied apology that trigger revenge and memories. Seeming trifles take matters to unexpected places, including Beirut courtrooms and a hospital, and create pain and a national media frenzy along the way. Like Ziad Doueiri’s previous The Attack, whose drama encompassed a terrorist act, The Insult is art-house fare to perfection, a film loaded with twists and compelling characters recognizable in all of us.

The film’s title seeds are sown when Tony (Adel Karam), a Lebanese Christian auto-shop worker, tangles with Palestinian refugee Yasser (Kamel El Basha), a handyman laborer assigned to fix a faulty drainpipe hanging from Tony’s balcony that is an indisputable building code violation. Tony resists, Yasser does what he’s supposed to do, Tony destroys his work and Yasser lashes back. When Tony demands Yasser’s boss elicit an apology, Yasser cannot.

A hearing initiated by Tony ensues over this war of words or lack thereof. Neither man has a lawyer, and the judge, perceiving the case as mostly a he-said/he-said, throws it out.

But Tony gets a much bigger opportunity for revenge and his notion of justice. Exposing friction between the countless war-tossed Palestinian Muslims recently arrived in Beirut and the city’s large Arab Christian population, the animosity between the men escalates when an attempt at reconciliation is engineered. The meeting again brings the two face-to-face, this time further igniting deep prejudice, hatreds and hardened pride.

Tony, already revealed as a loose cannon, lets loose a bigger insult that launches so much to follow when he seethes at Yasser that he wishes Ariel Sharon (the late Israeli Army Commander and Prime Minister) “had wiped you out.” This hits a nerve and Yasser reacts by laying a strong punch into Tony’s stomach. Some ribs are fractured but, worse, a broken bone does internal puncture damage. Tony’s pregnant wife Shirine (Rita Hayek) becomes collateral damage in this toxic exchange. The pair end up hospitalized, Tony for the stomach wound and the stressed Shirine, who gives birth to their daughter well before term.

Tony is again in court, this time with a stronger case (physical and psychological damage) against Yasser. The trial also pits father-daughter lawyers against each other. Tony engages the Christian establishment’s prominent prosecutor Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), a seeming legal tiger, while Yasser has young liberal lawyer Nadine (Diamand Abou Abboud), Wajdi’s daughter and an enlightened refugee sympathizer, for his defense.

The trial, with bold lines drawn, also gives way to immense media coverage and increased activism as it stirs tensions between Beirut’s Arab Christians and Arab Muslim refugees who have fled the Palestinian territories. The courtroom ordeal for both men also increases pressures on the home front. Tony and Shirine anguish over their premature baby’s struggle to survive and Yasser and wife Manal (Christine Choueiri) deal with the hard-working Yasser losing his handyman job.

Matters of pride, memory, historical revelations and past traumas creep in that are as surprising as they are relevant to matters of insults and apologies. As Doueiri and his writing collaborator and former wife Joëlle Touma showed in The Attack (whose location shooting in Israel caused the filmmaker’s detainment by authorities when he recently returned to Lebanon for The Insult), the duo know how to fashion a terrific story full of emotional impact in a work rightfully seeking recognition for Best Original Screenplay. It’s a contemporary story, but with roots going back decades to Lebanon’s Civil War.

The Lebanese-born and bred Doueiri condenses many themes here. The film could be called An Incident in Beirut, but goes larger as it reveals the DNA of ongoing conflicts and hatred. The filmmaker’s world view is no doubt informed by education in the U.S. and residency in Paris. As he said in an interview, “I believe there’s a narrative on each side.” Yes, and The Insult also shows that you can go home but speak universally.

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