The Insult is Lebanon’s entry for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, and indeed it could serve a primer on what is happening in that country right now. Its primary purpose is to educate and moralize, almost like Aesop. It is pedagogical to a fault. Director and co-writer Ziad Doueiri almost has the makings of a satire: like Citizen Ruth, the film is about a simple conflict that gains national attention, serving as an inflection point for modern life. While Alexander Payne, the director of Ruth, mercilessly skewers his characters, Doueiri has nothing but compassion for his. This is a film with its heart in the right place, to the point it has little balance elsewhere.
In the opening minutes, there is no actual insult spoken. It is only implied, leading to the parties being furious at each other. Tony (Adel Karam) is a mechanic who is expecting his first children with his wife Shirine (Rita Hayek). His balcony has a drain that empties onto the street below, and construction foreman Yasser (Kamel El Basha) notices this small detail when some water splashes on his back. Yasser confronts Tony about the drain, and this leads to an escalating battle of wills between the men, with neither of them backing down.
The escalating conflict only gets worse from there. The standoff comes to blows, with Yasser cracking Tony’s ribs after an especially nasty comment. Armed with an actual crime, Tony sues Yasser (he wants an apology, not money). The court case gets massive attention because of the men’s identities: Tony is a Lebanese Christian, while Yasser is a Palestinian refugee. The courtroom effectively becomes a political stage, with the lawyers rehashing Lebanon’s Civil War.
Before Tony and Yasser are in court, The Insult is an intriguing portrait of two proud, ordinary men. Neither of them is in the wrong exactly – Doueiri goes to great pains to show both of their sides – with a neighborhood builder (Talal Jurdi) serving as an exasperated go-between. It is a compelling slice of life drama precisely because of its specificity. The non-verbal acting by Karam and El Basha say more about who they are more than any line they speak. Even when their conflict gets physical, Tony’s impulsive, cruel comment comes from a plausible place of anger and frustration. For a while, anyway, The Insult expresses one of the more unfortunate parts of human nature: hatred can be borne out of simple frustration.
When Tony and Yasser are in court, they are mere pawns in a battle over the country’s identity. Camille Salameh plays Wajdi, Tony’s lawyer who effectively turns the legal dispute into a full-on kangaroo court. You see, Tony told Yasser he wishes the Palestinians “were wiped out,” and Wajdi suggests this hatred is understandable, albeit not justified. Yasser’s attorney Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud) is more a bleeding heart, saying that there is no place for hate. These are ubiquitous arguments, but the trouble is how The Insult sacrifices the film’s early drama in favor of a feature-length “teachable” moment. The courtroom becomes a metaphor for Lebanon’s identity, with civilian onlookers clucking along with the lawyers. There is even a slideshow about the Civil War, which borderline insults the audience. Western audiences may not be familiar with the conflict, but no one in that courtroom needs a reminder. Doueiri shoehorns shameless emotional manipulation, to the point he eschews realism.
There is even more over the top melodrama: Wajdi is Nadine’s father, and Lebanon’s President attempts to intercede in the conflict between Tony and Yasser. All this happens with the court’s tacit approval, as if nonstop grandstanding is a plausible legal strategy. Doueiri has all the subtlety of the bazooka. There are interesting, sharp points made in The Insult. The President says that Tony and Yasser’s feud could escalate into a literal war, and there are enough raw wounds to suggest he is not exaggerating. As I suggested earlier, this is perfect fodder for a satire, since exaggeration is an most important tool in a satirist’s arsenal. The Insult is too sincere, and too straight-laced for that. In the world of foreign art house cinema, this film is the equivalent of “Schoolhouse Rock.”