Ziad Doueiri embeds his new film with the deep wounds of the Middle East, creating a story rich in emotion.
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It takes a certain amount of circumstantial knowledge about the history of the Eastern Mediterranean to fully grasp all the complexities of Ziad Doueiri’s new film, The Insult. It’s a region that hasn’t enjoyed a period of comfortable peace since, heck, since the days of the Bible. There is mutual dislike between the Palestinians, Israelis, Jordanians, Syrians and Lebanese. This film takes place in Beirut and shows how national arrogance can bring a city to its knees.
It’s a wonderful film, filled with intricate performances and little acts that service a wider narrative. It all starts when a Palestinian construction foreman, conducting renovations in a neighbourhood, approaches a Lebanese mechanic to fix his illegal drainpipe. The mechanic refuses. The foreman fixes it anyway. The mechanic smashes the new pipe with a hammer. The foreman insults him, so the mechanic insults back. But the mechanic’s words are insidious and hurtful. The foreman punches him, and suddenly a silly little drainpipe has turned two men into ugly monsters.
The mechanic is Tony (Adel Karam), whose workshop sits at the foot of his apartment block. Every day he watches anti-Palestinian propaganda on TV. The foreman is Yasser (Kamel El Basha), an older man with a pleasant face, content to do his job quietly and do it well. The movie’s early scenes are the best, where Tony and Yasser engage in a kind of cold war. El Basha emerges as the better performer of the two, not because he is a better actor, but because Yasser is awarded much more variety to his personality. Tony is more or less a one-trick pony: disgruntled and hateful.
Both men have wives, and a dangerous incident involving Tony’s unborn child leads to a high-profile court case that ignites the citizens of Beirut to civil violence. Here, The Insult adopts a more formulaic courtroom approach in which professional lawyers argue and debate and give little attention to the emotional state of their clients. A lot of the dialogue is gripping, especially in relation to the socio-political events that guide the Mid-East, but I wondered if maybe The Insult would’ve been stronger if the drama had remained between Tony and Yasser, who get sidelined in favour of the boisterous prosecutor Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh).
But it only goes to show, in such a tumultuous region of the world, how a trivial misunderstanding, based on prejudice, can lead to defamation and bloodshed. It can reopen old wounds, cause conflict, shake up an uneasy peace. Both Tony and Yasser are to blame for their actions, because they have held on to past grudges, so it becomes impossible for The Insult to pick a side. Some would say it doesn’t need to pick a side, only to look on in hope for a better tomorrow.
The Insult is available in Australian cinemas from August 30
Image courtesy of Palace Films