'The Insult' Navigates a Minefield

The Insult (L’insulte)
(Lebanon/France, 112 min.)
Written and directed by Ziad Doueiri
Starring: Abdel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Camille Salamé, Christine Choueiri
Cohen Media Group
The Insult is a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film this year and come March 4th it could be the winner. Lebanon’s contender The Insult is a thrilling, gripping, and thought-provoking essay on collective trauma and letting go. The film is both a riveting courtroom drama and a powerful moral fable as writer/director Ziad Doueiri constructs a taut grudge match packed tight like a bomb. There are shards of hate and prejudice wedged deeply within the explosive that threatens to go off at any moment, and this volatile thriller dexterously defuses the bomb. Breathe a sigh of relief and let old wounds heal.

Doueiri draws upon an encounter he experienced when a clash with a repairman escalated into a feud with bitter roots. That’s what works so well about The Insult: everything happens so quickly and so casually that it feels plausible in its wildest moments. Even when the drama escalates to extremes, Doueiri keeps it tightly under control and on a tether.

The dramatization features has an inciting event to the incident that the director experienced. A homeowner, Toni (Abdel Karam), doesn’t want a repairman, Yasser (Kamel El Basha), entering his apartment to fix a drainpipe on the balcony. (One should note that Yasser and his team were working on the street when the illegal drainage from Toni’s balcony splashed water all over them.) Taking the practical route and acting upon the approval of the building’s superintendent, Yasser mounts a ladder, fixes the pipe, and gives Toni a new drain easy peasy.

And then Toni smashes it, which inspires Yasser to call him a fucking prick.

Two other significant details to note: Toni is a Lebanese Christian and Yasser is Palestinian refugee. This dynamic flares up when Yasser half-assedly apologizes and Toni utters a repugnant remark that he wishes the man and all his kind had been wiped out. Where Toni smashed the drainpipe, Yasser gives him an equally forceful punch to the gut.

The tension between the men and their respective cultures escalates immediately. As each man refuses to apologize for his behaviour, the feud assumes greater cultural and historical significance. Toni and Yasser take stands not just for their own dignity, but for the honour of their people who have suffered blows throughout history.

The case gains national interest when Toni presses assault charges against Yasser. The lawyers on both sides of the case see the cultural and religious divides as cards to play in their defence. The film poses fascinating and challenging questions that are relevant beyond the divide between Lebanese Christians and Palestinian refugees: can cultural oppression ever justify hate and violence? How long may rivalry  or hostility be the status quo?

The crime becomes not the punch, but the motivation behind it, and The Insult thrillingly puts the weight of the past on trial. Things escalate even further when Toni’s lawyer, a hotshot mouthpiece for Christian conservatism named Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salamé in performance that is delightfully verbose and confidently over the top) makes a not-so-accidental slight at the Jews during one of his theatrical cross-examinations. The case becomes a small scale civil war.

The Insult nearly pushes the boundaries of plausibility as tensions clash between the Christians, Palestinians, and Jews. The courtroom audience becomes a raucous circus each time Wajdi Wehbe, who humorously does all his speaking in the third person, pushes the buttons of the crowd to reiterate the cultural tension that is ingrained within his client. Not to be outdone, Yasser’s lawyer Manal (Christine Choueiri) relishes the opportunity of her Law & Order audition to make each cross-examination an effort to smash the patriarchy and to argue for the next generation to put the grievances of their fathers to rest. The theatricality of Salamé and Choueiri’s performances illustrate the film's firm grasp of the allegorical conventions and dynamics of the courtroom.

The choice to marinate in the past or to accept/offer forgiveness and move forward, however, is ultimately up to individuals. The Insult succeeds in its tricky morality play by giving two equally complex and complicated foils. Karam is a volatile personification of toxic masculinity as the hot-headed Toni. Beefed up with anger and sweating with machismo, his moody male proudly and defiantly wears the chips on his shoulders like well-earned epaulettes. El Basha, on the other hand, gives a performance of restraint and wounded dignity as Yasser. The elder actor, who won Best Actor at Venice last year despite having the less showier role of the two parts, carries years of anger and rootlessness on his back. Where anger pops from the screen when Toni appears, Yasser’s presence is cold and resigned with simmering frustration. The contrasting nature of the characters provides a fine clash of egos in search of harmony. The Insult nimbly navigates the minefield of political tensions embedded within the Middle East to offer a hopeful and healing plea for peace.

The Insult opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on Friday, January 26.