In Lebanese-born director Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult, an apparently minor argument on a Beirut street escalates into a full-blown legal battle, which itself threatens to erupt into civil violence as it rips open the festering wounds of historic religious and national resentment.
Tony Hana (Adel Karam) is a mechanic living in an apartment with his heavily pregnant wife Shirine (Rita Hayek). He’s also an ardent supporter of the right-wing Christian Party, whose anti-Palestinian rhetoric he listens to the way other mechanics would listen to Radio One. Building work is going on in the street and when Toni accidentally/on purpose spills water on the Palestinian foreman and engineer Yasser (Kamel El Basha), the foreman tells Toni his guttering is illegal and sets his workmen about the task of repairing it. Toni doesn’t take well to this and one thing leads to another and the insult is flung.
The speed of the escalation and the stubbornness on both sides means that the worst is still to come. Dragged over to Toni’s garage to apologise that Sunday, Toni expresses the wish that Ariel Sharon had “wiped out all of you”. Two broken ribs later and the case now moves on to more formal legal proceedings. It soon becomes clear that much more is at stake. Toni feels that he is standing up for the beleaguered Christians, who are resentful of the preferential and privileged treatment they perceive the Palestinians receiving. For Yasser, this is one more humiliation in a series of humiliations which sees him working as a foreman when he is actually much more qualified and more able than the people who hire him. It will also be revealed that they both have histories which are entwined and sullied by the history of their respective peoples.
As one court case resolves unsatisfactorily – due to Toni’s boneheaded intransigence and Yasser’s stoic silence – an appeal is lodged. With a new high-powered lawyer Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salamé) prosecuting his case, Toni’s argument becomes part of a national debate, with their personal lives also becoming part of the public record. Their own physical safety is now in danger as firebrands on both sides are provoked by the happenings in the courtroom. Such is the scale of unrest that even the President seeks to intervene. Doueiri, who comes from a Sunni background, and his Christian Phalange co-screenwriter Joëlle Tourma, seem to have modelled the film on one of those Hollywood rivalry films like The Duelists or Changing Lanes. It’s slick and, as the film proceeds, begins to broaden its compass with helicopter shots of the city and a pounding score.
The two men – so the thesis goes – have more in common than they know. They are both manual workers who make or fix things, workmen who take pride in what they do. They share a dislike of Chinese products. In one scene, Yasser can’t start his car and Toni is unable to resist fixing it. But historical grievance and memories of personal tragedy get in the way again and again. By the end, The Insult has become bifurcated, with the conventional courtroom drama heading to a sop of a denouement even though the men themselves have provided the film with a much more effective resolution in a preceding scene. The film can’t be faulted for its attempt to argue for some kind of humane kinship and reconciliation, even if this attempt ends up dissolving the enmity in a sentimentality that, given what has come before, strains credibility.