The Insult: The Verbal Quandaries of the Middle East

Image courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

** ½ (out of 4)

The basic plot of Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult offers a perfect illustration of why the Middle East has become a synonym for intractable conflict. At the film’s start, a right-wing Lebanese Christian named Tony (Adel Karam) gets into a dispute with a Palestinian named Yasser (Kamel El Basha) after the latter calls him a “f***ing prick.” Later, Yasser goes to Tony to apologize, but Tony tells him that “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out [at the Sabra and Shatila massacre].” Yasser reacts by punching Tony in the gut; Tony then decides to sue him. And thanks to a combination of factors – the pompous, big-name lawyer (Camille Salameh) Tony ends up hiring, the fraught history Tony’s insult alludes to – the lawsuit subsequently becomes the talk of all of Lebanon. In an escalation that puts Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole to shame, newspapers, political parties, and even the president of Lebanon all eventually find themselves weighing in on the proceedings.

In his blow-by-blow depiction of Tony and Yasser’s trial and the tensions it stirs up, Doueiri gets a lot of things right. His fast-paced editing doesn’t care much for traditional notions of continuity – new characters and spaces often pop in and out without any real introduction or setup – but it undeniably makes the movie extremely riveting. Both El Basha and Karam deliver convincing performances, even if the latter’s acting occasionally feels over-the-top. And in a testament to his desire for nuance, Doueiri consistently strives to make us understand both sides of the dispute. As both a refugee and the insulted party, Yasser earns our sympathy from the get-go, and Tony’s blatant, unceasing racism towards him only reinforces this sentiment. Yet in a surprise ending twist, the film eventually also introduces us to a part of Tony’s backstory – he’s actually a survivor of the Damour massacre – that helps us better appreciate the roots of his anti-Palestinian attitude.

All of this is enough to make The Insult a solid and readily watchable drama. Unfortunately, the inconsistencies in Doueiri’s narrative approach prevent the film from becoming anything greater. The overall story, after all, is constructed on the premise that Tony and Yasser are people who need to be appreciated as human beings in all their individual complexity – not as cardboard-cutout members of larger religious and national groups. This is the mentality that motivates Doueiri’s decision to bring up Tony’s connection to Damour; if we didn’t know about said connection, we’d be inclined to regard Tony as a caricatural personification of right-wing bigotry. And such a compassionate, individualizing mindset also manifests itself in the way Doueiri shoots the lawyers’ closing speeches at the trial. In one way or another, both of them speak of the importance of empathy, and as they do so, the camera underscores its approval of their declarations via gradual zoom-ins on their faces.

Image courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

The big problem with The Insult, however, is that its treatment of Tony and Yasser in practice runs counter to these professedly individualizing intentions. Doueiri sometimes does takes us into Tony and Yasser’s private lives: we get glimpses of Yasser’s rundown apartment, and we also witness the occasional argument between Tony and his wife (Rita Hayek). But the film ultimately spends a lot more of its energy depicting the way politicians and the media react to the trial’s every new development – as though Yasser and Tony were nothing more than tools for better understanding Lebanon’s larger sociopolitical fault lines. Furthermore, the numerous monologues that Tony and Yasser’s lawyers deliver at the trial take up the bulk of the film’s running time: instead of dealing with Tony and Yasser in particular, however, these speeches are usually expositional, textbook-worthy history lessons on the Lebanese Civil War. By the end of the story, then, almost everything you’ve learned about Tony and Yasser is somehow related to the “greater” suffering their respective peoples once underwent (whether at Damour or Sabra/Shatila), and the overall film feels incongruously impersonal as a result.

At one point in the movie, Tony complains to his lawyer about the latter’s decision to make Tony’s case into a no-holds-barred examination of Lebanon’s history; unsurprisingly, the lawyer dismisses Tony’s objections out of hand. If you asked him directly, Doueiri would probably condemn the self-righteous disregard for Tony’s emotions that the lawyer displays in this scene. Yet through his general lack of interest in meaningful character development, Doueiri ironically ends up treating both Tony and Yasser with that very same kind of disdain. Like Sebastián Lelio in A Fantastic Woman, in other words, Doueiri spends time emphasizing the humanistic nature of his intentions – only to then undermine those intentions via his tendency to turn his characters into mere symbols. And unfortunately, we’re the ones who ultimately have to deal with all the wasted potential he leaves in his wake.

Image courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

***

The Insult (2017)

Country: Lebanon/France. Dialogue in Arabic.

Starring: Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Camille Salameh, Rita Hayek

Running Time: 112 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for language and some violent images.”

Produced by: Rachid Bouchareb, Jean Bréhat, Julie Gayet, Antoun Sehnaoui, Nadia Turincev

Written by: Ziad Doueiri, Joelle Touma

Directed by: Ziad Doueiri