Film Review: Overly Constructed, “The Insult” Still Packs a Powerful Punch

Film poster: “The Insult”

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.

Adel Karam as Tony (left) and Kamel El Basha as Yasser (right) in “The Insult.”
Courtesy of the Cohen Media Group

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.

Nadim Hobeika as Nadine’s Assistant (left), Kamel El Basha as Yasser (middle) and Diamand Bou Abboud as Nadine Wehbe (right) in “The Insult.” Courtesy of the Cohen Media Group

[Film is in Arabic, with English subtitles.]

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic here at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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