Is the most wearying, on-the-nose movie about clashes involving religion and race and politics ever as on-the-nose as such clashes in our real world? I admit to rolling my eyes a time or two as Ziad Doueiri’s Lebanese legal thriller The Insult puffed up a minor personal dispute between Beirut Christian Tony (Adel Karam) and Palestinian refugee Yasser (Kamel El Basha) into a court case that grips the nation. It also sends rioters into the street, finds the aggrieved parties dressed down in person by Lebanon’s president and seems to have riding on its outcome nothing less than the very possibility of peaceful coexistence. Yes, the seams sometimes show, as the film gets occasionally schematic, as Doueiri strains at times to make one on-the-street incident emblematic of every fault line in Beirut life.
Yes, the characters — especially Tony and Yasser — too often seem ruled by the dictates of the storyteller’s point-making rather than their own personal motivations. But damned if everyone on the news in real life isn’t like that also. And damned if the film isn’t a gripping entertainment, passionate and humane, fascinating in the particulars of its court proceedings and political maneuvering, convincing in its insistence that a dumb fight over a leaking gutter could upend a fractious country.
The case at first seems cut and dried, but Doueiri’s genre — and his own compassion — demands complication. Tony, the brooding and hotheaded Christian, takes offense in showboating fashion when Yasser, the Palestinian foreman of a construction crew making repairs to buildings in Beirut, somewhat brusquely requests that Tony get his gutter fixed. After all, it spurts water on Yasser on the street below. Tony refuses. Later, when the construction crew replaces his gutter for him, free of charge, Tony, in a burst of brisk comedy, smashes it with a hammer.
What’s most interesting here is how Doueiri’s characters all recognize this incidental nastiness as a problem that must be handled — immediately. Yasser’s bosses see Tony not as a lone crank but as a liability who must be appeased and apologized to, at the risk of the company losing future work — and possibly igniting bigger controversies. Yasser turns up at Tony’s garage to make peace. Tony is listening to a vehemently anti-Palestinian speech from the long-dead Bachir Gemayel. It’s little surprise that, just a few minutes into his awkward conversation with Yasser, he snarls, “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.”
So, Yasser clocks Tony in the guts, breaking his ribs. Soon, Tony sues, and the courtroom scenes that follow — tense, talky, freewheeling, compelling — will examine questions of whether words can themselves be an assault, whether an insult can ever justify violence and whether it’s worth considering the sources of a hatred like Tony harbors for the Palestinians.
The two men tend to be stubborn and naive, manipulated by politically minded lawyers (Camille Salameh and Diamand Bou Abboud) who will be revealed to have a rather absurd family connection. Or at least I would have found it absurd back before Gloria Allred’s lawyer daughter briefly served Harvey Weinstein. Their wives each get too many scenes of looking quietly concerned, waiting for the men to drop the case, to wise up and move on with their lives.
Doueiri, with his roving camera and incisive eye, excels at capturing neighborhood life, at tracking the shifting moods of a packed courtroom, at communicating several ideas in a single shot with multiple focal points — while still building, in each scene, to dramatic stings that would fit on a TV drama. The Insult is a little pushy, sometimes even tough to swallow, but no more so than actual geopolitics. And its plea, in its final reels, for greater understanding from all of us about each other’s suffering — well, that’s worth being on the nose about. Still, I wish the looks of hard-won understanding exchanged in the final moments between the principals revealed something more about these men as individuals.