On the surface, “The Insult” tells the story of two men who argue, the bitter words they exchange and the explosive events that follow. But at its core, the film is about the weight of our words. It’s about histories ignored, memories forgotten and how harbored animosities can reveal the deeper implications of a trivial comment. The film, helmed by Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, is a breathtaking and powerful nominee for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film — and rightfully so.
The argument that shapes the narrative is one over a leaky pipe that spouts water onto the street and the heads of passersby. Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha), the foreman of a construction crew, approaches Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), the owner of the house with the pipe, to tell Tony that he can repair it. But Yasser is a Muslim Palestinian, and Tony is Christian. This means that, even before they meet, an unspoken hostility hangs between them. The film takes place in modern-day Beirut, Lebanon, the home of a recently ended civil war between Palestinians and Christians. Tony and Yasser’s heated encounter proves that, though the war is over, the country’s wounds are still fresh. Punches are thrown, scathing words are spilled, and the two find themselves in the midst of a courtroom battle, an event that reaches the ears of the public and subsequently reignites political tensions in Lebanon.
The historical circumstances in which “The Insult” takes place are unfamiliar, shrouded by the overall complexity of Middle Eastern disarray. The audience knows that something nags at these characters, but it is not directly stated. Instead, each piece of Lebanon’s history is beautifully revealed through realistic dialogue. The presence of these deeply personal and political issues renders every scene between these men stunning. As a result, the film is as compelling as an exploration of Lebanon’s history as it is a fictitious narrative. The characters are elaborate and fascinating with individual desires and intricate personalities. Tony and his wife Shirine (the inimitable Rita Hayek) in particular have the strongest dynamic in the film — especially when dealing with the birth of their first child, who cannot breathe without assistance.
The courtroom scenes in the middle of the film are aided by these striking performances as well. Wajdi (Camille Salameh) and Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), the two lawyers representing Tony and Yasser, are the characters in focus. Their distinctive performances mesh together impressively well. However, the characters’ added personal relationship detracts from these scenes in a small way. The reveal of their relationship is presented as a plot twist, but it’s not exactly subtle. It’s moments like these that attest to how the drama in the trial scenes can edge on banality. Often these scenes fall into the melodramatic back-and-forth dance of two talented lawyers and theatrical dialogue. They have a troubled relationship that affects the plot of the film, a trope unfortunately common in many crime series. Here, too, it doesn’t work.
What saves these scenes is the visceral cinematography by Tommaso Fiorilli. In sweeping and intimate long shots, Fiorilli captures the friction in the courtroom, populated by curious Lebanese citizens. As the strain of the trial prompts many citizens to action, the camera moves closer, presenting these actions with a sense of urgency. The cinematography is uneasy and unsettling, following these citizens as they riot and vandalize the streets of Beirut and call for others to take either Yasser’s or Tony’s side. The popularity of the case takes a toll on both Tony and Yasser — neither of whom intended for their words and actions to affect such a large number of people.
But as their celebrity increases, a seam of palpable empathy begins to weave itself between Tony and Yasser. Their relationship shifts when the tension in Lebanon is at its height. The two meet with the president, who implores them to end their dispute for the sake of the country. They don’t — but as he is about to drive away, Tony notices Yasser struggle to start his car. Tony looks into his rearview mirror, pondering whether or not to keep driving, but he turns around and fixes Yasser’s car anyway. The sequence balances sentiment with a necessary break from dramatic court scenes. Because Doueiri meticulously strengthens the connections between his characters, the film is stopped from joining the many superfluous and exhausting crime dramas littering today’s television networks.
At its heart, this film is an exploration of the nuances of social class issues and the undeniable power of our words. The latter is a familiar concept, but it takes a new light in this film — the true achievement of “The Insult” is the relevance of its message, one that reaches both the characters in the film and the audience.