The conflict of The Insult begins over a drainpipe. The Lebanese Christian Tony (Adel Karam) has a faulty drain on his deck that is spilling water onto construction workers. The foreman, Palestinian refugee Yasser (Kamel El Basha), offers to repair it so his crew won’t be splashed. Tony refuses. Yasser fixes it anyway, only for Tony to smash the pipe. Harsh are exchanged about each other, eventually leading Yasser throwing a punch that brings about a courtroom battle. There are more problems here than just leaky pipes as trial plays out.
Directed by Ziad Doueiri, The Insult doesn’t favor a particular side in the argument. Tony is portrayed as an expectant father, worried for his pregnant wife and the safety of his neighborhood. He works as a mechanic, working on cars as he listens to heated sermons on the radio and television. Yasser is an older man, struggling to keep his head down and not give in to the hate he has seen enough of in his lifetime. Both of them have understandable anger and lives that only become tougher as days go by. Tony is shaken that there are complications with the pregnancy and that his child must remain in the hospital. Yasser loses his job and fears his fate as a refugee, though not as profoundly concerned since he views himself as past his prime.
Their bitter disagreements lead into a trial that explodes from being a matter of slander versus violence to Lebanon versus Palestine. It becomes less about Tony and Yasser and more about outside gain. The lawyers on each side are willing to do whatever it takes to win, from digging up personal information without consent to showcasing historical arguments of atrocity. They also have a personal stake in this trial, as it’s a battle of father versus a daughter. As the trial continues, the feuding spills out of the court and into the streets, attracting national attention. Perhaps Tony may have gone too far by pressing charges. Even he is beginning to regret this decision for as much as he hates Yasser’s guts.
Of course, The Insult is a very heavy allegory for the pride we place in our identities and the wedge we shove between others. It’s a battle that could have very well favored one particular view, as when past atrocities are used as evidence to convince of wrongdoing, but it never strays from its path empathy. We get to know both Tony and Yasser to such a degree that we don’t want to see them bicker. They don’t want to either as the battle becomes far too draining for both of them, inevitably hurtling them towards each other as people that may not respect the same politics and beliefs, but recognize each other as people. One of the most understanding moments between the two, after a bitter talk with the Lebanese President who encourages them to stop, where Yasser’s car won’t start, and Tony reluctantly decides to help him out. No words; just one man helping another man with car problems.
The Insult may come on a little strong at times with its message and may even get a little twisty in its attempts to the keep the courtroom drama suspenseful, but it never fails to wrap the viewer into its tidal wave of long-running disputes. Both Karam and Basha are astounding actors in these roles of great depth, showcasing how they can appear as heated individuals of defense, as well as contemplative men of great understanding in their quieter moments. And the writing is so intelligently conceived and reflective of the regional politics that it’s easy for the uninitiated to jump in and understand the dilemma.
This type of film shouldn’t come as much of a surprise for its quality considering it’s from the award-winning director Ziad Doueiri, but it’s still astounding to see he hasn’t lost his touch. And in an age when emotions and tensions are running high across the globe, his all-encompassing tale of trying to decipher and decry political struggles feels as welcoming as it does mandatory.