Director: Ziad Doueiri
Cast: Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Camille Salameh, Diamand Bou Abboud, Rita Hayek, Christine Choueiri
MPAA Rating: (for language and some violent images)
Running Time: 1:52
Release Date: 1/12/18 (limited); 2/2/18 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 1, 2018
After so thoroughly establishing the central conflict and the assorted complications that arise because of it, The Insult reveals that all of its setup is only in the service of a naïvely idealistic message. By the third act of the movie, the entire city of Beirut is on the verge of massive political upheaval in the form of protests and riots. The escalation here seems both absurd and perfectly logical. It's both of these qualities in a tragic way: The widespread chaos occurs because two stubborn men from two different cultures cannot see the error of their own ways.
Since neither man is willing to admit to any wrongdoing, everyone else takes a side. The men become representatives of decades-old problems, and the opposing sides find themselves fighting, not only over the guilt or innocence of each of the men, but also over what the men represent.
This is to say that we've seen this sort of situation before—admittedly on a smaller scale than what the movie presents. We'll likely see it again, too, as political divides around the world deepen, become more founded on specific personalities, involve the sins and wounds of the past, and offer little common ground for even the most basic level of understanding. One could look at director Ziad Doueiri and Joelle Touman's screenplay as a parable about how political debates grow out of control, but to do that would mean to ignore the contemporary climate of politics.
In the movie's favor, Doueriri and Touman don't ignore what's actually happening in the present day. The story is specifically rooted in the history and politics of Lebanon, but that history and those politics will be familiar to anyone who has witnessed the effects of prejudice and the ways in which politicians take advantage of those feelings. The movie only feels like a parable because its foundation is universal. That fact, then, is the ultimate tragedy of this story: It happens here, but it could, in theory, happen anywhere.
The story revolves around two men: Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a Christian living in Beirut, and Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian refugee who lives in a camp on the outskirts of the city. Their initial conflict is over a broken gutter. Tony is watering his plants on the balcony of his apartment, and Yasser, a foreman for a construction company working on a building across the street, is sprayed with water coming out of the broken pipe.
Yasser tells Tony that the gutter needs to be fixed. Tony refuses, so the foreman and some of his employees start to repair the drainage system on their own. Tony comes out with a hammer and destroys the new gutter. Yasser calls Tony a "prick."
That's all there is to it. In theory, this should be the end of it. In reality, though, the conflict between these men possibly began before any words were exchanged between them. At some point before or at the start of their conversation, Tony figures out that Yasser is a Palestinian—from his accent. Tony is a member of the country's Christian Party, and he recalls the fiery rhetoric of his favorite politicians of the past. He can remember the words so well because he plays videos of those speeches while working on cars in the garage he owns and runs. For Tony, Yasser is a representative of all the terrible things those politicians have said, as well as the cause of his own pain.
There's nothing rational about this situation, which goes from a stubborn demand for an apology, to an equally stubborn refusal to apologize, to Tony suggesting that all Palestinians should be wiped from the face of the earth, and to Yasser physically assaulting Tony. Doueiri and Touma don't want to take sides, and that highlights our own moral and legal confusion over the scenario.
There's no reason that Yasser should have punched Tony, but there's also no reason that Tony should have openly called for the extermination of Yasser's people. The case goes to two different courts, and from the uncertainty of which of these men is the more wrong of the two, members of the public take sides based on their own ethnic and religious loyalties, their own political beliefs, and their own prejudices.
The movie understands and portrays how such a thing could occur. It features two strong performances from Karam and Basha, who imbue these characters with just the right balance of righteousness and inflexibility. We can fully understand where both men are coming from in their pain and outrage, but we also find ourselves struggling to sympathize with either of them, on account of how strident each one is in his belief that he's correct. Doueiri and Touma further indict a legal system that is ill-prepared for such a tricky case, while producing attorneys like Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), a grandstander with a right-wing political ax to grind, and his daughter Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), a liberal with her own agenda in the case.
For the majority of the movie, the point is the impossibility of an easy resolution to this situation—how irreconcilable these differences are. Admirably, The Insult wants to make reconciliation possible, but the ways in which it works toward that goal are overly simplistic and dismiss the complexity of everything the movie has established.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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