THE INSULT (L’INSULTE)

Producer: Antoun Sehnaoui, Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb, Julie Gayet and Nadia Turincev
Director: Ziad Doueiri
Writer: Ziad Doueiri and Joelle Touma
Stars: Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Camille Salame, Diamand Bou Abboud, Christine Choueiri, Rita Hayek, Georges Daou, Carlos Chahine and Julia Kassar
Studio: Cohen Media Group

B+

A minor personal dispute turns into a legal and political cause célèbre in Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult,” in the process reflecting the religious and ethnic fractures within present-day Lebanon. While the Oscar-nominated film is certainly wordy, sometimes makes its points too bluntly and softens toward the close, it proves a powerful intimate drama with broader overtones.

We are first introduced to Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a garage mechanic, as he applauds an incendiary speech by a right-wing Christian politician. Tony is married to lovely Sherine (Rita Hayek), who is happily pregnant with his child but concerned with his angry attitude.

Tony has a small garden on his balcony, which he regularly waters. Unfortunately, the drainage pipe is defective, sending a stream into the street below. A work crew has been hired by the city to do repairs in the area, and its foreman Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian refugee, notices the pipe and notes that he must repair it. Hannah responds with a stream of invective, and when Yasser does the repair anyway, Tony rips it down. Yasser responds with an insult.

Coming from a hated Muslim, this is something Hannah will not tolerate: he demands an apology, which the proud Salameh refuses because of his attitude. Though his boss (Talal Jurdi) tries to smooth things over, he cannot resolve the impasse. Tony responds with a lawsuit against him, in response to which Salameh meekly places himself on the court’s mercy. When the verdict doesn’t go his way, Hannah furiously accuses the judge of prejudice against Christians and is thrown out for his pains.

Things now get worse. Another attempt at reconciliation ends when Tony so insults Yassser that the latter punches him, breaking a couple of ribs. When Sherine nearly loses their child, it only further enflames his rage. By now Tony has decided to go for broke, appealing the case to a higher court and hiring a prominent Christian lawyer, Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), who sees the political hay that can be made, to present his case before a panel headed by a female judge (Julia Kassar).

But Yassser is not without resources: a young, inexperienced lawyer named Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud)—who will eventually be revealed to have a strong family tie to Wajdi—offers her services to him. The courtroom confrontation that results is reflected in increasing street violence between the opposing forces in the country, and even the intervention of the president cannot bring a solution.

The denouement comes when Wajdi presents evidence that explains, to some degree at least, the source of his client’s implacable hatred of Muslims. By this time both men have come to realize the damage their dispute has brought to their families and the nation, and reached a kind of private reconciliation. But their recognition of the pain that the other has suffered cannot paper over the divisions that still roil the general populace.

“The Insult,” in must be admitted, is not a subtle film: it is definitely schematic, and makes it points passionately and directly. That’s reflected in the performances, which can be accused in some cases (Karam in particular) of being over-the-top, especially in contrast to the quiet desperation El Basha so beautifully conveys. But it is undeniably effective in disclosing the seeds of the internecine conflict in Lebanon, and Doueiri skillfully weaves together the personal and political elements in the script he has fashioned with Joëlle Touma. Working with cinematographer Tommaso Fiorillli, he also juggles the different visual styles of the courtroom sequences and the grittier domestic ones.

“The Insult” may remind you of some of the films that have come out of Iran in recent years. That is high praise.