In Ziad Doueiri’s searing “The Insult,” a small slight spirals wildly out of control. It seems unreal that such a minor event can spark such a firestorm, but using the incident as a powerful symbol, Doueiri reveals the tinder box of trauma that is Lebanon nearly 30 years after its civil war. Drenched with a gasoline of machismo, stubbornness and pride, it’s no wonder everything goes up in flames.
Nominated for best foreign language film at next month’s Academy Awards, this tightly paced film showcases two powerhouse dramatic performances from Lebanese comedian Adel Karam and Palestinian theater actor Kamel El Basha, who won the best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival for this role.
Karam plays Tony, a Lebanese Christian, an auto mechanic with his own garage and a baby on the way with his young wife. One day, he encounters Yasser, a Palestinian engineer supervising a work crew repairing city code violations on his street. The two men tussle over the illegal open drain pipe on Tony’s balcony. Ugly epithets are thrown, and a feud is underway.
Part of what fuels the indignity of the insult is both men’s pride and their refusal to back down from their positions, or even apologize. But when Tony shouts at Yasser he wished Ariel Sharon had wiped all Palestinians out, it becomes clear this isn’t just about posturing, but about prejudice, and things turn violent.
Tony ultimately sues Yasser, and “The Insult” evolves into a riveting courtroom drama, with Yasser represented by a young hotshot female lawyer, Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), while Tony’s case is taken on by a legendary lawyer of the old guard in Lebanon, Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), who seems to have ulterior nationalist political motives. The two lawyers are well-matched, and lock horns, reaching deep into history for context to argue for their client’s justice.
The case, as it spreads into the media, takes on symbolic weight, as Palestinians and Lebanese Christians riot in the streets, exposing the fragility of the truce between the two groups. It becomes a treatise not just on words or respect but on the nature of the Middle East, and the deep-rooted traumas sown by war and unrest.
The script, written by Doueiri and Joelle Touma, is a masterful example of withholding and revealing information and of nuanced character development. Both Yasser and Tony are shown to be good men. Flawed, yes, but inherently noble. We follow what happens in their lives as the trial unfolds, moments of war and peace in the street as the battle unfolds meticulously in the courtroom.
Doueiri and Touma carefully parcel out bits of information that drop like bombs for the impact they have on the story. Slowly, they peel the bandage off the wound of the war, expose the unspoken traumas to the air, to let them breathe and heal. It’s ugly, and painful, but so necessary.
“The Insult” isn’t a subtle film, but it’s a powerful and impeccably crafted tale arguing for the crucial importance of addressing history and facing down trauma that welds hair-triggers onto our souls. Doueiri weaves a starkly intimate fable of violence that’s at once deeply personal and universally, globally relevant.
Starring: Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Diamand Bou Abboud, Camille Salameh, Rita Hayek
Rating: R for language and some violent images
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes