Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult dramatizes a perilous mutation, in which a slight becomes a culture-rattling event that threatens to explode tensions left over from the Lebanese civil war. In Beirut, Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) is a proud Christian with an animus toward Palestinians. Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), an older Palestinian who’s landed a good job as a construction foreman, is overseeing a project to rebuild refugee camps in the north. Working near Tony’s apartment, Yasser notices an illegal drainpipe spitting water into the street. Yasser asks to repair the pipe but Tony refuses. Legally empowered to do the work over Tony’s objections, Yasser fixes the pipe, which Tony then destroys. Yasser is polite and matter of fact throughout this conflict, while Tony suggests a vain peacock itching to pick a pointless fight. The altercation ends with Yasser finally taking the bait and calling Tony a “prick.” For many, this would probably be the end of it, but Tony demands an apology, spurring a court case that becomes a symbol of Lebanon’s identity crisis.
Americans watching The Insult may initially assume that Tony’s fed up with the construction work that’s glutting his neighborhood and is finding an inappropriate outlet for his aggression. Doueiri utilizes construction work—a commonly understood nuisance—as a symbol of the fraught tensions existing between Lebanese Christians and Palestinians. The titular insult seems to spring out of nowhere, when we still believe that Tony’s the sole protagonist of the narrative. Doueiri quickly sets his narrative pieces in action, within the first 10 minutes of the film’s running time, so that the audience feels the speed with which banal details add up to something potentially catastrophic.
The Lebanese civil war is one of countless nesting outgrowths of the modern formation of Israel. Wars, negotiations, and smaller skirmishes, overseen by outside countries with their own inherent interests, left countless Palestinians without a country. And Lebanon was among the places they landed, forming refugee camps that have become permanent—such as the camp that Yasser is helping to rebuild in The Insult. Lebanon’s political liberals are sympathetic to the Palestinians, while the political right stokes the fires of nationalist resentment. These tensions should remind Americans of their own fights, particularly over the legacy of slavery and immigration.
When Tony demands an apology over a fight he started, he’s asking for Yasser to atone for what he sees as a legacy of Palestinian intrusion and violation. (Early in the film, Tony is watching a TV show that suggests a Middle Eastern equivalent of a Fox News program, with a speaker who exploits anti-Palestinian sentiment to keep bitter natives exploitatively hot and maybe dangerous to people they’re conditioned to perceive as outsiders.) Doueiri structures the narrative so that outsiders can understand the stakes. The film’s dialogue is loaded with pointed references to the Six-Day War, Black September, and the Damour massacre, the latter of which is a significant plot point. As the legal process grinds on, Tony and Yasser each come to understand their opponent, while their supporters steel themselves for war.
The Insult buckles under this historical baggage, suggesting a blend of a crackling courtroom procedural and several Wikipedia entries. And Doueiri belabors Tony and Yasser’s commonalities for a hopeful and humanist conclusion. We’re supposed to sympathize with both men, but Tony is such a tedious hothead that the extension of empathy is hard to swallow, even with a deck-stacking twist in the third act. The film pivots on the sort of false equivalency that dogs liberal discussions of American politics: Doueiri is so eager for a nuanced argument that he’s too easy on his dogmatic opponents.
This material is personal for Doueiri, who was embroiled in a situation that could inspire a thematic sequel to The Insult. The filmmaker dramatizes how ideologically centered hatred can cloud perceptions of straightforward events—another phenomenon that should sound familiar to Americans. The Insult’s inciting event is ludicrous, and, while that’s the point, such ludicrousness ironically hems in the film. The characters become secondary to a morality play that recalls Asghar Farhadi’s films—only without Farhadi’s intuitive sense of emotional chaos. Farhadi follows a tangent anywhere it might go, while Doueiri, sympathetic to the Palestinians, sticks to his talking points.
For instance, Tony and Yasser’s respective attorneys—Wajdi (Camille Salameh) and Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud)—are revealed to be father and daughter who subscribe to opposing views of their country’s civil war. Yet this juicy twist comes to nothing. We never learn who these attorneys are as people, nor do we learn anything about Tony and Yasser and their families that isn’t related to their conflict. The Insult is well acted and staged with periodic liveliness, but its earnestness grows wearying. One longs for a spontaneous detail, and for dialogue that isn’t intended to teach us something.