The Insult is another provocative drama about the Middle East from Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, who made a film a few years ago called The Attack, a controversial movies about an Israeli Arab who finds out that his wife was a suicide bomber. Like the earlier film, this one was co-written with Joelle Touma, his wife at the time and now apparently his former wife. The Insult is about the tensions between Lebanese Christians, Lebanese Muslims, and the Palestinian Muslims who live as refugees in Lebanon. Doueiri himself comes from a Muslim family, and Touma from a Christian family, so we’re given an inside perspective here.
The story begins with a seemingly trivial event. A broken gutter leaks dirty water onto a construction crew whose foreman is a Palestinian named Yasser Salameh. He asks the house’s owner to fix it, but the owner, Tony Hanna, a hot-headed Christian nationalist, refuses, and then when the crew fixes it themselves he smashes their work. Yasser calls him a dirty word. Tony later complains to Yasser’s boss and demands an apology. After a lot of pressure, Yasser agrees to apologize, and goes with his boss to Tony’s car repair shop to say he’s sorry, but then Tony goes into an anti-Palestinian rant which culminates in him saying that he wishes Ariel Sharon had wiped them all out. Enraged, Yasser punches Tony in the stomach, breaking two of his ribs. Tony has him arrested for assault and battery, and thus begins an ever widening spiral of consequences that ends up becoming a big court case with nationwide publicity, opening old wounds and igniting increased hostility.
The reference to Sharon has to do with the invasion of Lebanon by Israel in 1982—Sharon being the Defense Minister of Israel at that time—in response to attacks by Palestinian forces. This was a particularly bloody episode in the 15-year Lebanese civil war, which went from 1975 to1990. The entire movie is really about the trauma of that civil war between Muslims and Christians, and how the people of Lebanon have still not healed from that event.
Yasser is played by Kamel El Basha, and his character tends to get all the sympathy at first over the abusive Tony (played by the excellent Adel Karam), whose temper draws criticism from his father and his pregnant wife, who have a much calmer view of the situation than he does. But the neat thing about this film is that as the story and the court case progress, our perspective gets challenged through revelations of previous situations and events, as we gradually get to see the full range of difference and of humanity in those involved.
Now, courtroom dramas tend to be simplistic, and sometimes contrived, and this movie doesn’t completely escape those problems. The issues get spelled out a bit too easily for us, the interplay between the lawyers is stagey at times, and it even turns out that the defendant’s lawyer is the daughter of the plaintiff’s lawyer, as if there weren’t enough complications. Nevertheless, there’s none of the easy “let’s all get together and sing Kumbaya” kind of plot developments. The debate is intense and thoughtful, and every bit of this conflict is hard fought and given its serious due.
Doueiri is very good at capturing the dynamics of people in groups, and conveying the relationships within a shot. The screenplay manages to use the story of a single incident blown up into a court case to teach us, rather amazingly, a whole lot of things about Lebanon and its history that we might not have known before. The Insult has toughness, and heart, and a sense of realism about politics that is very refreshing. This is engaged filmmaking as it should be.