“We live in the Middle East,” a character remarks during ‘The Insult’. “The word ‘offense’ was born here.”
A Palestinian Muslim working for a builder in Beirut is accidentally splashed with water, so he fixes a broken drainpipe on the balcony of a Lebanese Christian man’s apartment. Moments later, the tenant inexplicably loses his temper and smashes the new pipe. Harsh words fly; fingers are pointed; glares are exchanged. The dispute that sets ‘The Insult’ in motion is incredibly petty. As both men dig in their heels, it only escalates from there.
The resident of the apartment is a scowling auto mechanic and expectant father named Tony (Adel Karam), who tells the worker’s manager that he’ll only be satisfied with a face-to-face apology from the offender, Yasser (Kamel El Basha). Yasser is proud and reluctant but shows up to make amends once his job is threatened. He’s greeted with the sounds of an anti-Palestinian rant coming from Tony’s television and the mood darkens further when Tony explodes at Yasser, “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.”
Yasser responds by slugging Tony hard in the guts, dropping him to the ground and breaking two ribs. Whether the mechanic's verbal assault carries the same moral weight as the foreman's physical one is among the questions raised in court by their respective attorneys, pro-Christian Wajdi (Camille Salameh) and Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), who complicate an already bickersome argument.
‘The Insult’ is directed by Ziad Doueiri, who wrote the script with his ex-wife, and frequent collaborator, Joelle Touma. Raised during the war in communities taught to despise one another, Doueiri, a Sunni Muslim, and Touma, a Christian, have made a career of creating films with narratives from balanced perspectives set in the volatile Middle East.
Doueiri's 1998 debut feature, ‘West Beirut’, was a semi-autobiographical account of life during the early days of his country's civil war in 1975. In his second film, ‘The Attack’ (2012), a Palestinian doctor reevaluates his well-assimilated life in Israel after his Christian wife is identified as the perpetrator behind a suicide bombing. The doctor’s quest for truth takes him from Tel Aviv, where his wife is regarded as the face of terror, to the occupied territories, where she is hallowed as a martyr. In ‘The Insult’, Doueiri returns to his country’s civil war, illuminating a different angle of that 15-year sectarian conflict, which exacerbated tensions between Lebanese citizens and the Palestinian refugees in their midst.
Much of ‘The Insult’ unfolds as a ‘Law & Order’-style courtroom drama, after Tony files charges against Yasser. Public sentiment seems to favour Palestinian refugees and their suffering, which only further pisses Tony off, making him feel like more of a victim. Which he is, not merely because Yasser punches him, but (as we find out later via flashbacks) because of a traumatic childhood experience.
Tony isn’t an easy man to like. He's a jerk, really. He flies off the handle at his pregnant wife (Rita Hayek) and his father after both of them try to dissuade him from filing charges. At first, the older, calmer Yasser seems the more sympathetic of the two antagonists, but that image, too, is complicated, by one of several courtroom reveals.
Be forewarned: this is a film packed with verbiage. But the high-volume of exposition is extremely useful in guiding a viewer uneducated in the Middle Eastern conflict (like me) through the battleground of race, politics and history.
The courtroom debate slowly segues from the who-splashed-water-on-whom of Tony and Yasser’s case to the intricacies of the Lebanese Civil War. Yasser’s lawyer invokes the Black September massacre of 1970 as justification for a brutal assault in the Palestinian’s past; Tony’s lawyer counters by revealing, against his will, that Tony was a child survivor of the Damour massacre of 1976, when the city fell to Muslim and left-wing militants with help from Palestine Liberation Organisation units. Suddenly, the film confronts us with the true complexity of the Middle Eastern conflict and the ways in which a war fought over generations can make the ideas of victimhood and responsibility difficult things to define, rendering the justice system inadequate.
Tony and Yasser are both ruined (and later redeemed) by their macho arrogance: they are too proud to let go of their conflict and too dignified to use the suffering in their respective backgrounds to win sympathy in court, trapping themselves in a cycle of conflict.
But the performances remain powerful, especially Karam’s. Tony is a man whose unpredictable rage can be sparked by one wrong look or the slightest hint of a Palestinian accent, but Karam makes his character sympathetic through subtle gestures and facial expressions.
The characters' endless debating is meant to provide ‘The Insult’ with both dramatic tension and political even-handedness. Be forewarned: this is a film packed with verbiage. But the high-volume of exposition is extremely useful in guiding a viewer uneducated in the Middle Eastern conflict (like me) through the battleground of race, politics and history. It demands your concentration, as the film’s handle on the characters and their stories remains just out of reach of the audience - ‘The Insult' doesn’t offer a tidy resolution or easy answers. Luckily, the film also has regular lashings of dry humour to lighten the mood at appropriate times.
Using masculine aggression as an allegory for escalating conflict, and exploring themes of suffering and discrimination in a society where old memories constantly threaten the balance of order, ‘The Insult’ raises interesting (and timely) questions that resonate well beyond the Middle East.