** 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.