‘The Insult’ offers more than words
Written and directed by: Ziad Doueiri
Starring: Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Camille Salameh, Christine Choueiri, Rita Hayek, and Diamand Bou Abboud
“The Insult” – “Lebanon is a peculiar place, so bicultural, it goes along with you. There is a Western influence, an Eastern influence. Most people are fluctuating between those identities.” – Director Ziad Doueiri
Tony (Adel Karam) and Yasser (Kamel El Basha) productively work and fruitfully live within the vibrant heartbeats of Beruit, Lebanon. Tony owns a busy auto repair shop and enjoys his happy marriage with Shirine (Rita Hayek), who is pregnant with their first child. Yasser is a hardworking construction company foreman and meticulously hones his chosen profession while contently married to his supportive wife, Manal (Christine Choueiri).
During an ordinary day, Tony’s and Yasser’s paths suddenly intersect via a fairly harmless – but real - oversight, one that can be resolved through a cordial conversation. Their introduction, however, is quite the opposite. Caustic, abrasive and uncompromising. All of the initial hostility emanates from Tony towards Yasser, who shows more patience, probably grown from a couple more decades of navigating through life’s interpersonal conflicts.
Although, Yasser’s patience does wear thin. They trade insults, which then escalate in ways neither one could have imagined.
“The Insult” – nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar - was created through the thoughtful imagination of writer/director Ziad Doueiri, who was born and raised in Lebanon, but left for the U.S. to attend college during his country’s civil war. Doueiri states some of Lebanon’s cultural complexities in the aforementioned quote, and he pits a current source of the nation’s tension into a harsh disagreement between two individuals.
Tony is a Lebanese Christian and Yasser is a Palestinian immigrant.
“Us vs. Them” conflicts can be explored within any nation’s sociological textures, and one does not need to look very far to witness tangible struggles in the United States. Nevertheless, tensions in the Middle East can be volatile, and Doueiri explores a particularly combustible dynamic within Beruit in his effective character study with larger implications.
Karam and El Basha deliver convincing performances, as Tony carries a deep-seeded anger from some distant place that continues to seethe, and Yasser is unwillingly provoked by wounds from his past. Now, viewing their argument in isolation, Doueiri and Karam portray Tony as an overstepping transgressor and clearly in the wrong, as audiences will immediately flock to Yasser’s defense. At the outset, one might argue that blurred antagonist and protagonist roles would make a more gripping narrative, but Doueiri sows more complicated histories that help explain his characters’ current dispositions. Hence, after the initial insults (where words can most certainly hurt), those lines do become fuzzy.
The film’s high points lie with the onscreen exchanges between the leads and also with their respective wives. In fact, Shirine delivers the film’s biggest truth, when she proclaims that Tony wants to burn everything down and is unwilling to turn the page…with Yasser and his own past. As these interactions progress, Doueiri pulls an absolute need from the audience to grasp Tony’s and Yasser’s motivations, and a court case between the two becomes the eventual vehicle for their reveals during the movie’s second half.
The courtroom moments do contain some intrigue, two big surprises, and the competing lawyers (Camille Salameh and Diamand Bou Abboud) skillfully offer sharp arguments and rebuttals. Abboud is particularly terrific as Yasser’s defense lawyer, Nadine, who is young, brilliant and trying her first case out of pure principle. For each argument presented by the prosecution, Nadine seems to take a few seconds to process her next move and then delivers a successful counterpunch. Like the moments between Tony and Yasser, battles between Nadine and the prosecution, Wajdi (Salameh), present compelling cinema.
Speaking of compelling cinema, two specific Tony-Yasser confrontations reminded this critic of tense showdowns in an American western, but in these cases, sans the guns. Within the spaces of the individual characters, the picture shines, but when Doueiri visually inserts bigger set pieces to nationalize Tony’s and Yasser’s dispute – like protests or television interviews – the movie loses momentum, as they feel a bit staged.
These scenes are not necessary, and rather than occasionally explain the court case’s broader impacts, that additional time would arguably be better spent on more introspection when international cultural histories are weighed upon Tony, Yasser, their families and friends. Still, Doueiri’s script and all of the performances provide an absorbing look at a “peculiar place” and its shared worldwide experiences of the human condition.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.