A seemingly small but heated exchange of words sets off a powder keg of protests, media frenzy and hate speech in this incendiary, Oscar-nominated (for Best Foreign Language Film, from Lebanon) work from director and co-writer Ziad Doueiri (Lila Says, The Attack). The Insult begins on a seemingly peaceful street in modern-day Beirut, populated by Lebanese Christians and Palestinian refugees (both of which seem to dislike their Jewish neighbors, who thankfully stay out of this particular skirmish).
Tony Hanna (Adel Karam, Caramel) is a Christian who leans toward extremism when it comes to rejecting any Palestinians in this community. It’s unclear if this is a factor when he waters the plants on his porch and the runoff water spills on the head of Palestinian Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha), the foreman on a huge construction project taking place on the entire block where Tony lives and works (he owns an auto-repair garage).
Noticing that the drain from the porch is not to code, Yasser simply gets his men to replace it and funnel it properly to a drain, but the second Tony sees what they’ve done, he smashes is, resulting in Yasser calling Tony a “fucking prick.” When the owner of the construction company effectively forces Yasser to apologize, Tony taunts him, saying he wishes the entire Palestinian people had been wiped out years earlier. That causes Yasser to punch Tony in the stomach and break two of his ribs. The incident quickly becomes a microcosm for cultural differences and relations in the region, and decades-old hatred and resentment quickly rise to the surface of not just this street but also the entire city.
The incident lands the two men and their families in court (twice!); Tony suffers delayed health issues related to his broken ribs, which in turn may have caused his pregnant wife Shirine (Rita Hayek) to go into premature labor. Because Yasser is a refugee, he’s legally not allowed to run a construction site and is in danger of losing his job, putting his wife Manal (Christine Choueiri) in jeopardy, too. And both men become the targets of larger hate groups because of their stances on Lebanon’s Arab community.
The back half of The Insult plays out like a typical courtroom drama but with much higher stakes than you’ve likely seen. Opportunistic lawyers for both sides who have personal grudges against each other and stakes concerning the outcome seem to fuel the media circus and protesting outside the courthouse. Both dig deep into the backgrounds of the opposition to reveal facts that could change the course of the trial, even though they have very little to do with the actual case.
But some of the finest and most telling moments in the film occur during smaller moments that reveal that the two men at the center of this whirlwind regret allowing this dispute to grow so out of proportion. There’s a scene involving Yasser’s car breaking down outside the courthouse, and another that takes place at Tony’s garage that features one of the finest non-apology apologies in movie history. Director Doueiri does a solid job giving just enough history of the region and examples of cultural discrimination to keep those of us on the other side of the globe from feeling lost.
As much as The Insult is an issue-driven experience, what brings it to life is the acting, especially from those playing family members on both sides of these combatants. The more we learn about their lives and how they react to long-buried secrets coming to light, the more we begin to see that so little of what keeps this feud going has to do with the incidents themselves.
My biggest complaint with The Insult is that it wraps up a little too neatly, giving the impression that most, if not quite all, is well between both Tony and Yasser but the region they live in. There are a few knowing looks, relieved participants, and a resolution that doesn’t quite feel honest or realistic. But I’m a bit more willing to allow Doueiri to dream a little, because this is not meant to tell a real-life story but a representation of what likely happens on a daily basis in Lebanon. It may not be the conclusion that is the most likely, but it’s certainly the one we’d wish for.