“The Insult”, a Lebanese film, is one of the foreign Oscar nominees, directed and co-written (with Joelle Touma) by Ziad Doueiri. It explores the current political situation in Lebanon, focusing on a personal conflict between two men, a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian living in a refugee camp. It starts as personal drama, but it transforms, somewhat uneasily, into a satire about political exploitation.
It seems that, when your country is a powder-keg, an argument about a drainpipe can lead to a national crisis. Tony, played by Adel Karam, is a Lebanese Chrsistian who runs an auto repair shop. He lives in a balcony apartment in Beirut with his wife, who is pregnant. Yasser, a Palestinian refugee, played by Kamel El Basha (Best Actor, Venice Film Festival), supervises a team of workmen who are making repairs in Tony’s apartment complex. Tony is annoyed by the workmen and, when watering his terrace, sprays water on them. Words are exchanged, and Tony purposely damages his own drainpipe, which the workmen are required to fix in order for the work to continue. Yasser curses him, and walks off. But Tony, outraged, refuses to let the men do the repairs until Yasser apologizes. Yasser’s boss, trying to avoid costly delay, convinces the still angry Yasser to apologize. But when they appear at Tony’s house, Yasser hesitates. As if on cue, Tony rips into the Palestinian, saying that he wished Ariel Sharon had killed all of them. In an uncontrollable rage, Yasser physically attacks Tony, breaking two of his ribs.
After that, things only get worse. Tony goes back to work too soon, aggravating his injuries. His wife finds him unconscious and, in trying to move him, induces premature labor, which results in the infant being put on life support.
Things calm down a bit, if only briefly, at Yasser’s criminal assault trial, which turns out to be the best scene in the film. It gives us the only credible character, the judge, played by Carlos Chahine, who even tries to behave like an impartial adult. He even-handedly forces both men to face their biases. Tony, however, is outraged and accuses the judge of Palestinian bias himself. But this only results in the dismissal of the case.
Up until then, the drama has focused on the two men. It is well-acted and staged, and fairly absorbing. But after the criminal trial, Doueiri opens up the story to include all the political and ethnic factions that rush in to exploit the situation and, I’m afraid, narrative focus is lost in the process. The remainder of the film, while skillfully told, piles up the events and new characters, leaving the audience numb and uninvolved.
Specifically, Tony starts a civil trial, which goes on endlessly. Tony’s lawyer takes on the case just to showcase Palestinian brutality. Yasser’s lawyer – who just happens to be the daughter of Tony’s lawyer – wants to highlight the terrible plight of the Palestinians, as well as to settle some unknown score with her dad. Then we get screaming demonstrations by each faction as well as the anti-Zionist crowd, which includes spray-painting the Star of David on Tony’s shop window.
It all gets to be a bit too much. Ironically, Doueiri seems to be aware of this. In a telling scene late in the film, Yasser shows up, unannounced, at Tony’s house. Tony is puzzled, and asks him what he wants. Calmly, and with a faint smile, Yasser viciously rips into Tony, slurring all Christians, and Tony responds with violence. But it was all an act. Hurt but smiling, Yasser finally gives Tony the apology that was the only thing he ever wanted in the first place.
Doueiri seems to be saying that, in a sane world, this should be the last scene in the film. But, of course, there is no sanity in today’s Lebanon. The last quarter hour of the film returns to the numbing, relentless parade of outrage. The two antagonists seem only weary and frustrated. The trial verdict satisfies no one, and the film ends anti-climactically.
I respect Doueiri’s perspective. He wants to depict a society torn by hate and distrust. Unfortunately, we get the point early, and the repetition wears us down. Like the two main characters, we feel left out of the story altogether.