On a sunny afternoon, two strangers get into a dispute on a Beirut street. Choice words are exchanged, and egos are bruised. Later, when the two men seek to resolve the situation, tensions flare up and their dispute escalates into a fistfight. Straightforward, right? Well, when the parties in question are a Christian Lebanese citizen and a Muslim Palestinian construction worker, nothing is so simple. As Lebanese-American director Ziad Doueiri’s courtroom drama “The Insult” (2017) makes clear, in today’s Lebanon, the complicated and often tragic history beneath the surface of everyday life can lead a seemingly private dispute to have far-reaching, widespread consequences.
“The Insult,” which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival this summer, examines the result of an argument and eventual fistfight between auto mechanic Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) and Palestinian-born construction foreman Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha). As Yasser’s crew tries to carry out code-ordered repairs on Tony’s apartment, Tony smashes their work to pieces, leading Yasser to insult him. When Yasser comes to apologize, Tony goes on an offensive anti-Palestinian tirade, at which point Yasser breaks his ribs. Tony sues, and the situation is further exacerbated when his wife Shirine (Rita Hayek) gives birth to their daughter prematurely due to the strain of helping Tony when he later collapses.
Their case becomes a cause célèbre throughout Lebanon, leading to riots and bringing back uncomfortable memories of the Lebanese Civil War. These wartime recollections figure particularly prominently in Tony’s nightmares.
It sounds complicated because, well, it is. Lebanon is not afforded the luxury of cut-and-dry solutions to such things. Each interaction and each decision carries the weight of years of history, conflict and, too often, unspeakable tragedy. Tony, hostile to Yasser and all Palestinians from the start, is tortured by what happened in his hometown at the hands of the Palestine Liberation Organization during the war. When the case attracts widespread attention, Tony’s lawyer Wajdi (Camille Salameh) suggests that public sympathy for Yasser is a result of the Palestinian struggle being “trendy.”
In a lesser film, the telenovela-worthy twists and turns might detract from its effect. “The Insult” does fall victim to this to a certain extent; the reveal that Yasser’s lawyer is the daughter of Tony’s hotshot lawyer is frankly ridiculous. While the lawyers’ subplot does have a thematic purpose (an attempt to represent the generational differences between those in Lebanon who came of age in the war and those who came after), it unfortunately cannot overcome the B-movie cheese of the judge (Julia Kassar) exhorting Wajdi along the lines of “Let your daughter speak!”
However, the plot’s other convolutions add to the thematic message of “The Insult.” The fraught history and cultural implications behind Tony and Yasser’s personal conflict give a double meaning to their exchanges. When their supporters argue across the aisle of the courtroom, it appears as if two entire peoples are airing out their grievances with each other.
Tony and Yasser’s dispute was never going to be simply a dispute between two men; it was always going to turn into a cultural and historical battleground.
Stylistically, “The Insult” is fairly straightforward. The real meat on this film is found in the dialogue and acting. Adel Karam turns in a dedicated performance as Tony, whose hardened exterior and deep-seated bitterness do their best to conceal deeply felt trauma. In one deeply affecting scene, as the defense plays a video detailing the 1976 massacre in Tony’s hometown, he hastily ushers his father (Georges Daoud) out of the courtroom and comforts him. Later, as the case draws to a head, Tony finally revisits his seaside hometown and lays down in a banana field, experiencing a brief moment of carefree bliss — likely his first in a very long time.
The standout performer of “The Insult,” however, is Kamel El Basha as Yasser. El Basha picked up a Volpi Cup in Venice for his work in the film, seemingly a foregone conclusion when observing the weight, gravitas and stoic dignity he lends to each of Yasser’s words and actions. Stateless, expelled from his home and wandering from Palestine to Jordan to Lebanon, Yasser could have simply slipped into despair. However, El Basha, who spent time in an Israeli prison as a young activist, instead plays a character who retains every ounce of his pride — and with it the deep-seated anguish and hurt that grows out of continued marginalization. That defiant humanity (on Tony’s part as well) in the face of a history of conflict, is ultimately what makes “The Insult” worth watching.