Movie's metaphor for life in Middle East

In the provocative Lebanese film "The Insult" a minor conflict over a gutter between two ordinary men in Beirut escalates to become an issue of national security.
Movie's metaphor for life in Middle East

Adel Karam (left) and Kamel El Basha in a scene from “The Insult.”

In the provocative Lebanese film “The Insult” a minor conflict over a gutter between two ordinary men in Beirut escalates to become an issue of national security.

The film, from director Ziad Doueiri, became Lebanon’s first foreign language Oscar contender. It also caused a fair amount of controversy after being banned in Jordan.

A man tasked with bringing the apartments in one part of Beirut up to code, fixes an illegal drainpipe. The owner tells him not to touch his apartment and smashes the new pipe. 

The construction worker, Kamel El Basha (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian refugee, swears at the owner of the apartment, Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), who is a Lebanese member of the Christian Party. Everyday offenses aren’t just gripes. In this context, they take on the weight of everyone’s history, prejudices and traumas.

Tony is incensed by Yasser’s swearing and becomes wholly obsessed with getting an apology — much to the bafflement of his very pregnant wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek). Yasser, subdued but proud to a fault, doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong — it was Tony who smashed the pipe, after all — but his boss convinces him to apologize, reminding him that he’s a visitor in “their” neighborhood.

The apology couldn’t go worse. When Yasser arrives to Tony’s auto shop, Tony is listening to some anti-Palestinian rhetoric on the radio. Then Yasser fails to immediately apologize and Tony, once again, gets hot and says he wished Ariel Sharon would have “wiped you all out.” Yasser punches Tony in the ribs, and suddenly they’re dealing with an assault.

The films shifts then to a tumultuous courtroom drama, first with both men representing themselves and then with high-powered lawyers who stoke the flames of the conflict just as each individual wonders whether it’s worth it.

There is drama between the two lawyers too, a father and daughter arguing on opposite sides. The father, Wajdi (Camille Salameh), is a nationalist. The daughter, Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), is empathetic to the Palestinian plight. Mercifully for those not steeped in the history of the conflict, the smart script makes it easy to get wrapped up in the film without a deep understanding of the situation at the outset.

“The Insult” doesn’t appear to have an agenda or bias, beyond empathy. Each side gets impassioned and compelling arguments made on its behalf, and the audience becomes the de facto jury, weighing each new piece of evidence and revelation. It’s quite a riveting and though-provoking journey, with compelling and nuanced performances all around, and, although it is quite serious, not without moments of levity.

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