The Insult is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards, as it should be. It’s a thought-provoking story about two men — Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a Lebanese Christian, and Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian refugee, who find themselves in a legal battle after a heated exchange culminating in Tony insulting Yasser and Yasser punching Tony in retaliation. Before it evolves to physical blows of hurt and suffering, their initial confrontation stems from a petty disagreement, tinged with racial animus, over a broken water pipe and a noise complaint.
The spiraling of their conflict explores cross-generational tensions between the two cultures. “Does an insult carry the same weight of a physical assault?” a judge wonders. When it opens up every old wound, it does.
Writer-director Ziad Doueiri (West Beirut, Foreign Affairs, Baron Noir, The Attack) is a Lebanese filmmaker whose movies have been met with some international success — and infamy, such as his choice to use Israeli actors and shoot in Israel for The Attack. For The Insult, Doueiri plays with the tried-and-true approach to courtroom dramas that has worked well in Western film for several decades, imbuing it with political issues that have arisen over time due to Middle Eastern conflicts. His technique is admirable, his ability to craft empathetic, interesting characters is strong, and his facility for fluidity in audience allegiance — to the extent in which the audience ends the movie better versed in issues but not necessarily having taken a side — is laudable.
There is, of course, a tendency for films focusing on injustice to choose one side to highlight, or at least sympathize with more heavily. But for long-term conflicts, it’s sometimes impossible to see only one side as correct. There’s no throwing up of hands here, no “Well, it’s all fucked up. What can you do?” Doueiri’s script instead pleads for increased empathy and understanding while acknowledging even as we search for such graces, we’re all susceptible to external influences of hate and anger.
Although explicitly about Middle Eastern politics — and The Insult certainly leaves a viewer better informed about the topic, without feeling like a lecture — the film’s depiction of a man driven to racist rage by a combination of past experiences and right-wing propaganda isn’t terribly far off from reality in, well, most countries, particularly these days. The Insult addresses violence, racism, antipathy and social strife across strata and how military conflicts often led to populations of refugees whose worth in their place of resettlement is called into question by wealthier, more privileged citizens whose action or inaction led to their plight. It’s all here, examined from as many angles as possible, tried in court.
Whether The Insult distinguishes itself enough from a standard courtroom drama is a question more for audiences who want to see something different, but it remains engaging throughout. In this moment of the world, Doueiri’s desire to capture all sides of a conflict, and a plethora of social issues, is commendable.
The Insult opens at Landmark Keystone Art Cinema in Indianapolis on February 16.