Those of us unfamiliar with Lebanese politics over the past century will probably miss out on countless subtleties in The Insult, but ultimately this is a universal film. It’s a simple tale that becomes increasingly complex: two men at odds over something as small as a drainpipe, and the massive ramifications of their feud.
While The Insult an inherently Lebanese picture—the country’s first to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar—it’s not hard to imagine something similar taking place in our own backyards. Mechanic Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) is a staunch supporter of Lebanon’s Christian Party, and a soon-to-be father. Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is a foreman working to fix up Tony’s neighborhood.
On the day of the insult, Tony is washing off the balcony of his second-story apartment, and his illegal drainpipe splashes water on Yasser. He goes to speak with Tony about fixing the pipe, but Tony hostilely turns him away. Yasser fixes it anyway and Tony comes out and smashes the new setup to pieces. Yasser calls Tony a “fucking prick.”
Though we may not yet fully grasp the underlying issues here, we can gather that Tony’s problem goes beyond the drainpipe. Tony, a Lebanese national, will later concede in court that he knew Yasser was a Palestinian refugee because of the way he spoke. He goes to Yasser’s boss and demands an apology, but Yasser, who laments Palestinians’ place in the Arab world, cannot bring himself to say he’s sorry. Tony needles him before saying, “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.” Enraged, Yasser punches Tony in the stomach, breaking two ribs and setting off two trials that will soon garner national attention.
In the aftermath, The Insult raises questions about identity, religious intolerance, geopolitics, and so much more—which makes the inciting incident all the more ridiculous and all the more profound. The drainpipe in retrospect becomes a symbol of battlegrounds past, and it’s a past the two men learn they’d rather have left alone.
Director Ziad Doueiri, who was arrested by Lebanese police in Beirut shortly after the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival (he was later released), does a masterful job weaving together The Insult’s many ideological threads. The story continually challenges assumptions. The trickiness of the plot stands to illuminate the objective wrongness of various -isms, but it also allows for empathy on both sides of the situation.
As with many minor arguments and many larger post-colonial conflicts, there’s fault to go around, and Doueiri seems more interested in exploring causes than in placing blame. While the trial grows more divisive, the two men at its center find themselves to be more alike than they’d imagined.
The Insult gets so many things right, and its Oscar nod is well deserved. Equal parts intriguing plot and deft characterization, this is a story that transcends language and national boundaries. Don’t be surprised if you see an American remake somewhere down the line.
Director: Ziad Doueiri
Starring: Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Camille Salameh
Theater: Lagoon Cinema, opens Friday