The Insult, Lebanon’s official submission for the 2017 Best Foreign Language Oscar, has advanced to the final qualifying round of five, where the film is sure to emerge less battered than the two antagonists at the heart of its story. Director Ziad Doueiri has shaped an instructive scenario in which a petty, street-level argument escalates into insults and physical aggression, and then grows into a courtroom drama midway through as the case grips the nation and incites all-out violence. Like much of what takes place in the partisan clashes in the Middle East today, the details often appear fuzzy to Western outsiders. Even though some shadings and nuances may fall flat on these shores, The Insult follows a programmatic routine. Every barb is countered in kind, and the lesson about how little offenses can lead to major consequences is the kind of stuff used to quell schoolyard skirmishes. Civil war, however, rarely kneels to pragmatic morality, finding its flame stoked by ancient grievances and generations of hostility. All this is acknowledged in The Insult, but mere understanding is not enough to move the goal line.
Tony (Karam) is a Lebanese Christian in Beirut, whose balcony drainpipe protrudes illegally into the street. Yasser (El Basha) is a Palestinian refugee who’s been assigned to work in Tony’s Beirut neighborhood fixing minor code violations. Yasser begins repairing the drain spout but Tony demolishes his work with a hammer. Yasser replies with an expletive, so Tony visits Yasser’s boss to demand an apology. An attempt at rapprochement brokered by the boss ends in Tony uttering an ethnic insult and Yasser punching him in response and breaking a few ribs. Subsequently, they take their grievances to court where the case is thrown out when neither man can prove his argument. The case, however, advances to a higher court and this time Tony hires the Christian establishment’s most prominent prosecutor (Salameh), while Yasser is represented by a young defense lawyer for refugees (Abboud). Past histories and religious beliefs are dredged up for a nation’s delectation, while the individuals and their spouses become pawns in a bigger national debate.
The first two features made by Western-trained Doueiri were the adolescent romance West Beirut and the coming-of-age story Lila Says. With his third film, The Attack, the filmmaker (and his regular co-screenwriter Joëlle Touma) ventured into more complicated dramatic territory with a story about a doctor whose wife, unbeknownst to him, is a terrorist. In reviewing that film, I noted that "answers prove more elusive than questions." The Insult brings forth a similar reaction from me. The film allows its participants to find individual solutions but provides few state resolutions or conclusions. Like most conflicts in the Middle East, the parties’ intransigence is palpable and the countries’ court dockets are backed up with several millennia of affronts. The Insult shows how personal resolutions may be the only recourse and pathway to personal peace.
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