A squabble over a drainpipe escalates into an overblown legal fight in “The Insult,” Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri’s Oscar-nominated drama. Telling a story both Middle Eastern and universal, the gripping film explores the reverberations of historical trauma while also proving entertaining as a courtroom duel.
In “The Attack,” Doueiri explored Palestinian identity and Palestinian-Israeli differences through a story about a peaceful doctor discovering why his wife became a terrorist. This time, again cowriting with Joelle Touma, he examines the divides existing between Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim communities through a story about two men shaped by their pasts and driven by pride, sometimes disastrously.
In contemporary Beirut, Tony (Adel Karam) is a 46-year-old Christian auto-garage owner and an admirer of assassinated militia leader and president-elect Bashir Gemayel, whose anti-Palestinian speeches still excite him. Tony lives with his pregnant wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek), who tries, unsuccessfully, to keep his hot-headedness in check.
Yasser (Kamel El Basha) is a 60ish Palestinian refugee who lives with his Lebanese wife, Manal (Christine Choueiri). He works as a construction-crew foreman, a job legally off-limits to him.
The hostility begins when water from Tony’s illegal drainpipe spills onto Yasser, who, over Tony’s objections, repairs the pipe.
An angry Tony destroys Yasser’s work, prompting increasingly hateful remarks. When Tony, referring to Yasser’s heritage, says, “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out,” Yasser slugs Tony. Both men land in court.
Tony hires Wajdi (Camille Salameh), a leading Christian lawyer with a big personality, to represent him. Defending Yasser is the less experienced Nadine (Diamond Abou Abboud), who has sympathy for Palestinians and a surprise connection to Wajdi.
The trial begins as a bicker session about which man has been most wronged, but soon features more informative testimony, about the histories of both men. Subjects include the anger that being deprived of your rights can cause, or what it’s like to survive a massacre during Lebanon’s civil war, a conflict that appears ready, thanks to this trial, to start again.
The story isn’t without contrivances, and Doueiri can overdo the melodrama and symbolism. But he keeps things entertaining and doesn’t lose touch with his characters’ underlying humanity.
Karam and El Basha, the latter of whom has a face ideal for the stubborn yet dignified Yasser, ride Doueiri’s wavelength splendidly.
The rousing film looks at traumatic events worth remembering and illustrates how war affects individuals, communities and nations over generations. Far from a downer, it also hints that peace might not be an impossibility.
Viewers seeking a solid political or courtroom drama, or simply something with depth, should give “The Insult” a look.
Three and a half stars
Starring Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Camille Salameh, Diamand Bou Abboud
Written by Ziad Doueiri, Joelle Touma
Directed by Ziad Doueiri
Running time 1 hour, 52 minutes