The Insult (Ziad Doueiri, 2017) 3 out of 4 stars.
A brooding cinematic reflection on ethnic conflict and reconciliation, The Insult – from Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri (The Attack) – takes on the Middle East’s fraught history of sectarian violence in a manner both profound and cathartic. If it stumbles a bit from a burden of overly expositional passages – characters delivering speeches – on the way to its complex resolution, it nevertheless packs a powerful enough dramatic punch that resonates long afterwards. Strong performances add to the solid mix of personal, cultural and political plot points. One of five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2018 Oscars, it may not be my favorite from among them, but is certainly an honorable contender.
After an opening set at a Lebanese Christian Party rally, the film begins innocuously enough, with a construction crew hard at work in a residential street of Beirut. When a man – Tony – waters his plants on the balcony of his apartment above, where there is no proper piping to route the liquid, the crew is sprayed. Tony refuses to stop, so the foreman of the group, Yasser, directs his men to install a pipe. Tony comes back out, sees them doing this, and smashes the pipe. Yasser, incredulous, responds with a vulgar insult. Incensed, Tony threatens action against the company that employs the crew if Yasser doesn’t apology, something he says he won’t do. One things leads to another, they fight, and things get worse. Before long, what started as a personal feud leads to a national debate about past sins.
Why this escalation? Tony is a Christian, and Yasser a Muslim; even worse, he is a Palestinian, not technically allowed to work in Beirut at all (or, at the very least, it’s complicated), even if permitted to live as a refugee. Though the two men have never met before that fateful day in the street, they each see in the other a symbol of all that their people have suffered. Christians in a predominantly Muslim country feel persecuted, and Palestinians feel welcome nowhere (because, sadly, they usually are not). Much of the story – though not all of it – takes place in courtrooms, as the two men’s lawyers do battle. Adding an interesting generational twist, those dueling barristers are father and daughter.
It’s a tightly constructed story, filled with excellent actors, including Adel Karam, as Tony; Kamel El Basha, as Yasser; Rita Hayek, as Tony’s wife Shirine; Camille Salameh, as Tony’s lawyer (aka, the father); and Diamand Bou Abboud, as Yasser’s lawyer (aka the daughter). That structure is also part of the problem, since we sense the screenplay’s careful guidance at every turn. The reversals and plot revelations also feel a little too stage-managed. Nevertheless, by the final, cathartic end, we emerge from the narrative journey enlightened and transformed, with a better understanding of the challenges faced by those who inhabit the movie’s world. If out of great specificity come universal truths, then on that level The Insult is a resounding success.
[Film is in Arabic, with English subtitles.]