'The Insult' tracks a personal and political confrontation
The personal is political and the political gets intensely personal quickly in director Ziad Doueiri's "The Insult." What begins as a minor problem escalates into legal confrontations with international reverberations. At first glance, it seems such a simple issue to resolve. Instead, it quickly becomes apparent that in the charged atmosphere of Beirut, Lebanon, nothing is truly innocuous.
The catalyst that ignites Christian car mechanic Toni's and Palestinian Muslim Yasser's ire occurs inadvertently. As Toni tends plants on his apartment's second floor balcony, water sprays the construction crew working on the street below. Looking up, the foreman Yasser observes an illegal pipe and offers help, only to be rudely rebuffed. From there, with sublime narrative efficiency, the punch/counterpunch accelerates, with Yasser urged to apologize but finding it impossible. Two courtroom trials and the recounting of a massacre follow with the media exploiting Christian-Muslim tensions, fueling street protests. Historical scars run deep in the complicated, fraught legacy of Lebanon's fifteen-year (1975-1990) civil war and the contemporary status of Palestinians. And Yasser, living in a refugee camp, carries the legacy of numerous indignities.
At Telluride, where I first saw "The Insult," co-writer/director Doueiri explained how events in his own life inspired this story, especially his acute awareness of pervasive, often unacknowledged, religious and ethnic elements. Raised Muslim, Doueiri challenged himself to wonder if the Christian militias have a valid position. With Christian co-writer, ex-wife Joelle Touma, they probe identity, which all these individuals embody in emotionally complex ways. In fact, every social interaction resonates with barely submerged animosity with powerful, implicit connections to many countries' problems.
Extraordinary, nuanced acting and exceptional camerawork give every scene palpable tension. Notably, "The Insult" is among the five films vying for a Best Foreign Film Oscar as Lebanon's submission. This shocked Doueiri since, ironically, because he filmed in Israel, authorities detained him at the Beirut airport upon his return from this year's Venice Film Festival where Kamel El Basha (Yasser in the film) won best actor, the first for a Palestinian. Doueiri, who also holds American citizenship, was released, but will there by a formal apology? In Arabic with English subtitles. At Landmark's Tivoli Cinema.