One will long for a glimpse of Beirut’s Pigeon Rock, a swaying palm, or some focus of natural beauty to alleviate the tension of being in the middle of Middle Eastern political turmoil. Most of what cinematographer Tommado Florilli gives the viewers of “The Insult” is ugliness and flag waving, yet the emotion-filled faces of the actors are rendered with perfect timing and depth. Even rosaries swaying over rearview mirrors evoke divides. Beirut, Lebanon, looks dismal, even as cars are being repaired and buildings are being improved. Building, fixing, bettering everything appears easier to remedy but the divide between Palestinians and Christians.
This being said the French/Lebanese film is insightful, thought-provoking, and a must see. Director and co-writer Ziad Doueiri and co-writer Joelle Touma pit two civilians against each other, a microcosm of the larger “we versus they” problem. Kamel El Basha is the Palestinian refugee and a construction foreman, Yasser. His nemesis is Tony, a Christian tenant of the apartment building Yasser’s boss is renovating. Tony ( Adel Karem ) is angry and seeks solace with membership in the Christian Party. Its leader’s picture, Bachir Gemayel, hangs over their expectant baby’s crib. Tony listens endlessly to his speeches.
Tony’s wife, Shirine, ( Rita Hayek )is not as ideological, and would like to leave the city for the quieter countryside. She understands her husband’s history and his stubborn ego. Tony works in an automobile repair shop and admits he is no Jesus Christ, who would turn the other cheek to humiliation.
The event takes place ten minutes into the film. Yasser is organizing his crew under Tony and Shirine’s balcony. Tony has illegally hooked up a drain so that when he waters his flower pots the water splashes to the street from above. Yasser gets wet, tries to reconnect the flawed pipe, and is rebuffed. He hurls an insult. Yasser refuses to apologize for calling Tony a “fucking prick” and the escalation ends up in court.
The courtroom scenes are amazing, again a microcosm of group disdain apparent in the world at large. The media in its reporting provokes and enlarges the community rift. The opposing lawyers are top-notch, and they happen to be father and daughter. The female judge warns that she will not wear a bullet proof vest to court. “ I don’t believe it all started over a gutter.” And the stakes get higher. Tony says the judge is biased: “It pays to be a Palestinian.”, he yells in the courtroom. Both men know what they did, insulting someone’s identity, is against the law.
Questions of verbal assault seem ironic when the rooster-like prosecuting attorney spouts off more insults like “these people are sneaky and deceitful”. Actor Camille Salameh is brilliant as a Christian true-believer, who wishes to prove his skills in front of his more liberal-minded daughter, Nadine, ( Diamond Bon Abboud ). The courtroom scenes I found electrifying.
Women seem to add hope. Yasser’s wife, Manal, ( Christine Choueiri ) instructs her man: “ You insulted a man. Now fix it. You love your work. Don’t ruin it. Turn the page.”
The men remain stubborn, though both are good husbands and both take pride in their work. Tony gives the ultimate insult: “ I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you people out!” Yasser throws a punch and breaks two of Tony’s ribs. Tony’s wife tries to reason with him until their baby is born prematurely. Initially, Shirine chides Tony: “You are stuck; you don’t want to change.”
Ultimately, neither man likes what their lawyers are doing. “ We live in the Middle East. The word “offensive” was born here.” Rage, provocation, violence seethe . Free speech and hate crimes’ issues erupt in court, and on the streets pizza delivery men and businesses pay the price.
Eric Neveux’s musical direction adds to the tension and to its release. Expect your emotions to jerk from one perspective to another. There are no sides championed here.
“The Insult” is up for an Oscar award for “Best Foreign Film”. Its nomination is well-merited. This is a timely film that seems as old as time and human nature while still illuminating current events and extreme partisanship.