A dialogue of national reconciliation takes the form of a courtroom drama in Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult, one of this year’s nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. It all begins as a minor conflict between a Lebanese Christian mechanic, Tony (Adel Karam), and a Palestinian engineer living in Beirut, Yasser (Kamel El Basha). Yasser is working on the apartment complex in which Tony lives when he notices that the drain on Tony’s deck is leaking onto the street. When asked for permission to enter the apartment, Tony angrily refuses. Yasser repairs the drain anyway, which Tony destroys and demands an apology. Yasser’s refusal leads to a slur of racial insults, culminating in “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.” Yasser punches Tony in the gut, breaking two ribs, over which Tony presses charges. Press coverage of the case boils over into a nationwide dispute, reopening wounds from the Lebanese Civil War that were never fully healed.
“This is how wars are started,” the president tells the two in a attempt to settle the dispute that threatens the country’s stability. Lebanon knows this better than most, having endured a multi-front civil war that raged for 15 years, from 1975 to 1990. Though there has been nominal peace, polarization and resentment still simmer. Tony is a member of what is referred to as the Christian Party, and frequently listens to speeches by wartime Phalangist (another word for fascist) leader Bachir Gemayel, and dodges questions about why he refuses to return to Damour, where he grew up.
R, 114 minutes
Violet Crown Cinema
The attorney he hires, Wajid Wehbe (Camille Salameh) shares the same resentment over the perception that the Palestinian cause gets more attention than that of the Lebanese citizens. Though the film focuses on the Lebanese context, it is not a leap to connect this feeling to the white working class that supposedly helped Trump win the election through a mix of economic uncertainty and racial animosity, scapegoating immigrants and nonwhite residents for their troubles. Many of the coded words and dog whistles that Tony and Wajid use are similar to those we hear in the United States, and though Tony is clearly acting out of prejudice and revenge rather than principle, there is a much straighter line between his lived experience and his xenophobia than that of the alt-right’s.
Perhaps the bravest decision by Doueiri is making The Insult more than a simple “plague on both your houses” parable, as there is no cheaper move than to poke and prod at a hot button issue and remain noncommittal. Tony’s hatred did not appear out of thin air, but it does not apply to Yasser. Yasser, meanwhile, has lived a complicated life, wanting to defend his dignity while accepting that Palestinians will never be welcome no matter which country hosts them. Tony’s trauma is real, but his imagined persecution is not; Yasser is restricted in his rights, where he can live and pray, and what jobs he can perform, and the way he has learned to live with this reality is complex. He stands up for his personal dignity, but he would rather plead guilty in the first hearing than drag things out, and refuses to say what it was that drove him to hit Tony.
There are pacing issues and a few contrivances that would be dealbreakers in most other films, such as the fact that Wajid’s daughter defends Yasser, a fact which is revealed in court much to everyone’s surprise. It’s a solid metaphor concerning how the generation who lived through the war and those born after it differ in their priorities, but the execution is clunky. However, the honesty of The Insult’s emotional core is engaging and daring, and the performances so phenomenal, that it is well worth your time no matter your level of familiarity with the history behind it.
Playing this week
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
A Quiet Place, Basket Case, Black Panther, Blockers, The Death of Stalin, Isle of Dogs, Ready Player One, The Sandlot
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
A Quiet Place, A Wrinkle in Time, Black Panther, Blockers, Chappaquiddick, God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness, I Can Only Imagine, Isle of Dogs, Love, Simon, The Miracle Season, Paul, Apostle of Christ, Ready Player One, Tomb Raider, Tyler Perry’s Acrimony
Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
Black Panther, Blockers, Chappaquiddick, Distant Sky: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Live in Copenhagen, The Death of Stalin, Isle of Dogs