The Insult

Two working class men; a right-wing Christian and a Palestinian refugee, are locked in a clash of wills that turns into an overblown feud exposing the country’s tinderbox of historical and sectarian divisions. No it’s not Trump’s America, although this story could be happening anywhere in the world and does eventually explode into a wider national crisis. This is Lebanese writer, director Ziad Doueiri’s vital and exhilarating new film The Insult.

There’s a disclaimer at the beginning of The Insult proclaiming that the views expressed in the film are not those of the Lebanese Government. Clearly they must have felt the complex political subject matter depicted in the movie to be highly controversial. The Government needn’t have been worried. The Insult is a profound and accomplished work by a talented and remarkable filmmaker that the Lebanese can be proud of.

Filmed in the busy and dusty streets of Beirut, a haphazard maze of narrow laneways lined with concrete apartment buildings and shuttered storefronts that blend together in shades of grey and white strewn with tangled clusters of electrical wires. The sundrenched city becomes very much an angry volatile character in itself. 

When the Mayor tasks the city works department with improving infrastructure and removing code violations in an Arab Christian neighborhood known for its complex mix of religious and cultural backgrounds, it requires a delicate hand to avoid offending anyone’s sensibilities. The construction company that has been contracted to do this job employs mostly Palestinian refugees working illegally in Lebanon.

This is the foundation on which this tough, hard-hitting human story is told with an extremely tight narrative that moves along at breakneck pace; throwing the viewer into a seemingly common everyday dispute that unexpectedly grows into something much more complicated.

A hot-headed Lebanese Christian auto mechanic Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) and a Palestinian Muslim construction foreman Yasser (Kamel El Basha) get into a heated argument over a balcony gutter drain that quickly escalates when neither side is willing to concede to the other. We immediately sense that there is more to this altercation than meets the eye.

Based on some of Mr. Doueiri’s own personal experiences when, as a young man, he impulsively insulted someone while on his balcony in a neighborhood where people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds were living. The experience changed him and had a profound effect on him. What he learned remains as relevant as ever.

The Insult, Lebanon’s foreign language Oscar submission for the 2018 Academy Awards, is an urgent film that takes on many of today’s pressing issues of illegal migrant workers, deep seated cultural and religious hatreds, the effect of the media in our justice system, free speech vs hate speech, and egos getting in the way of decency. Ultimately we see how people can create toxic situations in their present lives due to festering unresolved anger carried from their past.

It’s Tony’s angry reactionary impulse, and Yasser’s, the older of the two, intense emotional restraint that holds us glued to this powerhouse drama. Kamel El Basha won the best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival for his performance but they all deserve recognition. The utterly convincing performances by all the actors, including the two lawyers representing their clients, are invested with such intense emotion that one feels compelled by turns to sympathize with both parties. The realism is so palpable that one could be forgiven for thinking the film is some kind of docudrama. To his credit, Ziad Doueiri gives us a balanced analysis from all sides.

Ziad Doueiri who was first assistant cameraman on many of Quentin Tarantino’s films including Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and Jackie Brown (1997), is working here with cinematographer Tommaso Fiorilli to give the tight conglomerate of dust veiled buildings in Beirut a dramatic cinematic energy. Doueiri’s visual style was also influenced and inspired, as many filmmakers were, by Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke’s landmark films The Qatsi Trilogy (1982 – 2002) and the amazing Baraka (1992), and Samsara (2011) series.

What really sends this perfect storm of family drama, political thriller and courtroom drama into the realm of classic cinematic heights is Doueiri’s confident direction, skillfully blending brilliant performances with a single-minded focus on a deeply felt storyline about two men both claiming to be victims and ruining their lives in order to be right, all stunningly infused with searing visual bravura that breathes authentic life into every scene.

The Insult must surely be Ziad Doueiri’s answer to some of the difficult issues that Lebanon and many other parts of the world are grappling with in today’s tense political sectarian environment. As one of the film’s lawyers points out, “No one has a monopoly on suffering.” This is the kind of thought provoking filmmaking Governments should be celebrating, not deterring.


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