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In 'The Insult,' flare-up is microcosm of Lebanese Christian-Palestinian tensions

The film’s most nuanced summation comes from a lawyer who says, 'No one has a monopoly on suffering.'

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Rita Hayek (l.) and Adel Karam star in 'The Insult.'

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A minor flare-up in the streets of Beirut, Lebanon, accelerates into a microcosm of the contemporary tensions between Christians and Palestinian Muslim refugees in “The Insult,” the powerful new movie directed by Ziad Doueiri that is one of five nominees for this year’s Oscar for best foreign language film. 

The fracas begins when Yasser (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian living with his wife in a refugee camp and the foreman of a Beirut construction crew, notices an illegal drainpipe coming from an apartment balcony. When the workers ask Tony (Adel Karam), the apartment’s owner and a Lebanese Christian with a loathing for Palestinians, if they can fix the pipe, he shuts them out. So Yasser goes ahead and fixes it anyway, leading to a hot exchange in which Yasser spews expletives at Tony, who then demands an apology. Both Tony and Yasser are bullishly proud men, and a forced attempt at a truce leads to a standoff in which Yasser breaks two of Tony’s ribs and culminates with a trial and an appeal that gain national attention.

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In the initial trial, both men appear without lawyers. Tony believes he doesn’t need one “because I’m right.” Yasser, though admitting his guilt, nevertheless stands resolute, refusing to utter for the judge Tony’s words that led to the violence during the confrontation. Those words were, “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out,” and Yasser cannot debase himself by speaking them. 

Doueiri, a Lebanese Muslim who co-wrote the script with his ex-wife Joelle Touma, a Lebanese Christian, is not out to indict one party or the other. (Doueiri has worked as a camera assistant for Quentin Tarantino and directed “The Attack,” an intriguing drama about an Arab-Israeli surgeon in Tel Aviv who discovers that his late wife was a suicide bomber.) As the film mostly plays out in the courtroom, his approach can seem at times too determinedly evenhanded for such a volatile subject. But this method, which likely owes something to the religious dualism between Doueiri and Touma, is certainly preferable to the screed this film could easily have become.

The film’s most telling aspect is that, as the courtroom confrontations and media frenzies heat up, both Yasser and Tony become, in effect, minor players in the larger national drama being played out. Their respective lawyers – Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Bou Abboud), who represents Yasser, and her father, Wajdi (Camille Salameh), who represents Tony – take center stage. (Salameh, who is like a Lebanese Claude Rains, is especially marvelous.) Tony, to Wajdi’s astonishment, doesn’t even care about any financial settlement; he just wants an apology. His wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek), whose baby is born sickly during the time leading up to the trial, possibly due to the stress, wishes Tony would just end his selfish recriminations. Yasser’s wife feels the same way about her husband, leading to the unavoidable conclusion that Middle East tensions would be a lot less tense if women were in charge – a sentimentalization, no doubt, but, given the intractability on view in “The Insult,” not so far-fetched.

Neither disputant is glorified. Yasser, with his look of grim dignity, is a marvelous camera subject, and, as played by El Basha, you can see a lifetime of suffering in those drawn features and wary eyes. (El Basha won the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival.) But Yasser, as revealed in the trial, was no angel during the Lebanese civil war that ended in 1990, a war that severely affected Tony’s childhood and adds a layer of empathy to our assessment of him. (Yasser is at least a decade older than Tony.) 

Despite his Christian bona fides, Tony, who makes a point of listening to anti-Palestinian TV rants in his auto repair shop, is no saint, either. He defiantly tells his wife that he is no Jesus Christ and can’t turn the other cheek, saying, “We don’t solve this thing by pretending to love each other.” To make peace would eliminate the ferment that animates his life. And yet, imperceptibly, both he and Yasser come to understand that they are more alike than they realize. (In the film’s most felicitously funny moment, they both recognize, during the court proceedings, their strong shared preference for German-made machinery over Chinese.) There’s even a quick scene near the end in which Tony circles back to the parking lot after the trial and, with his nemesis looking on, wordlessly fixes Yasser’s nonstarting car engine. This grace note shouldn’t work, but it does. The unspoken amity, despite everything, is palpable and, even more, believable. 

In the end, the film’s most nuanced summation comes from Wajdi, who says, “No one has a monopoly on suffering.” Grade: A- (Rated R for language and some violent images.)