By Elias Savada.
When 46-year-old automobile mechanic Tony George Hanna (a piercing-eyed Adel Karam) is first seen in The Insult, he’s at an open air rally supporting the country’s right wing, anti-refugee political faction. At home, a photo of his hero hovers over the crib of his soon-to-be-born daughter, despite pleas from his beautiful and supportive wife Shirine (Rita Hayek), who feels like she’s under constant surveillance. Tony’s fervent leanings will take on deeper meaning in this scorching courtroom drama from Ziad Doueiri, an American trained director, who worked under Quentin Tarantino before returning home to Beirut a decade ago, working from a script co-written with Joëlle Touma.
The film, a multi-country production, including the United States and Lebanon, scored the latter its first official Best Foreign Language Film nomination. Sure, the film has the usual legal potboiler tropes, but it also sports a thoroughly engrossing storyline – even if you’re not familiar with the historical background that infuses it – and offers up stellar performances that bring this modern-day story to life. The Oscar nod is a first for the Lebanese Republic, which has seen centuries of suffering, occupation, divisions, assassinations, civil conflicts, and a brief 2006 war with Israel. These political, religious, and ethnic struggles are often used as backdrops for the projects within its filmmaking community, including Doueiri’s first feature West Beirut (1998), a romantic comedy-drama about a mid-1970s friendship between Christian and Muslim teenagers. The Christian-Palestinian struggle provides the incendiary fuse in The Insult, although it is the stubborn pride and emotional scars of its protagonists that extend their initial verbal skirmish into a much larger social commentary.
Fifteen years older than Tony is Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha), a hardworking Palestinian refugee with a tortured, stubborn soul, one of many in a country filled with millions of impoverished refugees (up to 500,000 of whom are from Palestine). He’s also a well-educated civil engineer who has been hired as foreman for a large local construction company to oversee building code violations in the Hanna’s neighborhood. Most of the buildings have issues, but one problem, concerning a quick fix to an broken gutter spout at Tony’s second floor apartment, begins the highly charged film’s descent into incivility.
The film offers a fairly evenhanded look at how emotional memories (fragmented visions) – some repressed, some not – will change a mole hill into a mountain. How a series of court appearances that a hotheaded and legally naïve Tony foists on the sedate and equally uniformed Yasser will lead to repercussions that take on a life of their own, especially after the self-serving, biased prosecutor Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salamé), who believes “These people are sneaky, deceitful,” takes up Tony’s cause, while a young liberal-minded corporate attorney, Nadine (Diamond Abou Abboud), decides it is in her personal interest to represent Yasser with his hate crime defense. Often the perpetrators of the titular offense and the physical retort find themselves confused by how their counsel is handling the various court episodes. Tony insists he wants no money, although circumstances from the original attack spiral beyond his arrogant demand for a simple apology, particularly after Tony’s injuries cause his wife to give premature birth to their child.
Doueiri and his resourceful cinematographer Tommaso Fiorilli continue their collaboration – The Attack (2012) and the French television series Baron Noir (2016) – planting their aggressive cameras about the courtroom and the city with an intimate flourish, providing the viewer with a seat in the middle of the courtroom action or following along with the key characters. There are some visual digs at the stuffy Christian business community, which appreciates the good workmanship from the Palestinian labor force, but want them to cut illegal corners (they refuse) to increase their profits. The socio-economic difference between the haves and the have-nots is as plain as the shiny new black GMC Yukon SUV that the company honcho and his entourage drive about town.
Of the two wives, Shirine’s role is stronger and more farsighted. She has a brief change of heart, but never fully accepts Tony’s motives. Yasser’s Christian wife, Manal (Christine Choueiri) is a smaller part, playing a supportive spouse who mildly questions her husband’s stubborn tactics.
Incendiary times on all sides of the socio-political spectrum paints The Insult with not only the battle lines being drawn among the two protagonists, but their supporters in the gallery. It escalates further, spilling into the streets, where, naturally, it’s picked up and flashed about the Internet. The film peals away a country’s national identity issues and plops them on naked, harrowing display for the court, the country, the world to witness.
The highly charged and bleak film, where retaliation eventually takes on an eye-for-an-eye interpretation, angles toward a conciliatory conclusion, with a few surprises and some elegant gestures along the way. With the political landscape throughout the world so strained, whether referring to Lebanon or the United States, The Insult takes on a global relevance in its message.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).