Film Review: The Insult

The latest from co-writer/director Ziad Doueiri is a vaguely overlong, yet still sometimes scorchingly powerful, legal drama obviously intended as a bold political allegory, but also worth it simply for the characters and the harshly human realism.

As the first Lebanese movie to ever be nominated for an Oscar (as Best Foreign Film at this year’s ceremony), you’d think that many would be very pleased with it, and yet this evidently makes someone out there uneasy as it opens with a surprising disclaimer stating that it doesn’t reflect the views of the Lebanese government.

Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) is a Christian Party member in Beirut who runs a garage where he works with the cars while his pregnant wife Shirine (Rita Hayek) tends to the bookkeeping. Although looking forward to his daughter’s birth, he’s immediately shown to be a little aggressive, and when the gutter from his balcony splashes on Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian Muslim refugee running a construction crew, this minor problem is the beginning of a near-international incident.

Tony refuses Yasser and his workmates entry to the apartment, so they change the pipe from the gutter outside without his permission, and he then smashes it and Yasser, as the title states, insults him. Tony demands an apology, and makes sure that vicious anti-Palestinian speeches are playing on his TV when Yasser comes to officially say sorry. A punch is thrown and this leads to a lawsuit, financial troubles for the men, high emotions in the courtroom, the opening of old wounds, despair for Shirine, the gleeful involvement of the media and the threat of riots in the streets, something which the budget can’t quite depict convincingly.

Tony’s lawyer is the old-school Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), no stranger to grandstanding, and Yasser’s is the relatively inexperienced Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), who sympathises with the Palestinians and certainly has something to prove. The scenes in the court where these two go head-to-head, as the men’s friends and families sit on opposing sides of the room, barely controlling their hatred for each other, are very strong, despite a little hysteria and improbability.

Drawn-out, to be sure, and just a touch haranguing in tone, here and there, this is nevertheless an important film because of what it says about forgiveness, even in the face of centuries of war, bloodshed, horror and repression. Karam and El Basha’s performances are at their best not when they’re at each other’s throats, but when they lock eyes and begin to see that common humanity. It’s also worth noting that director Doueiri, a Lebanese Muslim, co-wrote the script with his ex-wife Joelle Touma, a Lebanese Christian.

And, it must be said, if they can forgive, forget, move on and work together then anyone can.

Rated M. The Insult is in cinemas now.

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