Written by Ziad Doueiri and Joelle Touma
Directed by Ziad Doueiri
Two men of different ethnicities, religions, and political parties meet, and one almost unconsciously insults the other. Neither will back down, and the situation escalates.
Sounds like a promising satire, with comic hijinks building on top of each other until everything collapses in a hilarious finale lampooning bigotry, machismo, and stupidity. But this Lebanese feature isn’t built for laughs. It’s a court drama, and an excellent one. It makes the same points it could have as a comedy, but told seriously, it digs deeper and helps you care about these two stubborn men.
Tony (Adel Karam) is a Christian, and belongs to a very right-wing party. The Insult‘s opening sequence, at a party rally, sounds very much like a Trump gathering. People ecstatically call out towards the charismatic leader who talks about purifying their nation.
Yasser (Kamel El Basha) is a Palestinian refugee. He’s received a worker’s permit that allows him out of the camp and into the city. He’s not a citizen and doesn’t belong to any party, but he’s sensitive to the bigotry that he experiences every day.
An alteration over a sewer pipe brings these men together and it’s hate at first sight. Tony feels he has been insulted, and demands an apology. Yasser is reluctant to give him one, and doubts that Tony would accept anything reasonable. Not surprisingly, their wives become unsuccessful voices of reason. In one attempt at patching things up, Tony steps from simple racism to a call for genocide. Yasser reacts with his fists.
With cracked ribs from Yasser’s punch, Tony takes the case to court, at first asking only for a public apology. The case goes to a higher court and becomes a media event.
Suddenly, it’s no longer about two men, but about all the wars that have rolled over Lebanon in the last 50 years. Massacres on both sides get relived on a smaller scale in the courtroom and than in riots. The Palestinians are clearly on the lowest rung in Lebanese society, and have suffered greatly. But a handful of them have committed atrocities, and for many – especially Christians – the crime of one Palestinian proves that the whole race is evil. Or even subhuman.
The bigotry thrown around isn’t always targeted at Palestinians and Christians. Anti-Semitism pops up, even though there isn’t a Jewish character in the film. The Palestinians talk easily about the evil Jews, and even the Christians – who enthusiastically support Israel and Netanyahu – choose to be Jew haters. Racism of all kinds is just in the air.
Rita Hayek plays Tony’s wife, the most decent and caring person in the film. She’s very pregnant, and worries about how the stress of the moment will affect the child. The baby’s health becomes a major subplot.
In a film about two men who hate each other, one expects some kind of resolution – a way for them to come to grips with their anger and see their antagonist’s humanity. The people who made The Insult knew the audience was looking for that. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that it happens in a very subtle way, and it’s more realistic than optimistic. This isn’t a feel-good movie.
The Insult, a Lebanese movie about Lebanon, seems appropriate to America right now. The story could easily take place in our country between Trump supporters and Democrats. The Insult is relevant to the whole human race.