Expanding out to more screens just days after securing an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Ziad Doueiri’s ‘The Insult’ is both a very specific parable about Lebanon and a film that feels absolutely right for our fraught times.
The story takes a small interpersonal argument and expands it into a nationwide controversy. Although the movie feels at times like it’s stretching credibility a little too hard for the sake of its politicized themes, at this specific moment in history, even the most outrageous moments on screen feel depressingly possible in our increasingly polarized society.
It all starts with a broken drain pipe. The troubled pipe hangs off the apartment of Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) and his wife Shirine (Rita Hayek). A foreman named Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is working on repairing the neighborhood and asks Tony to fix the pipe. He responds by slamming the door in Yasser’s face. The city then fixes the drain pipe for free and, in a little bit of amusingly brusque comedy, Tony responds by smashing the repaired pipe with a hammer. Obviously, Yasser doesn’t care for that response. Harsh words are exchanged and, in a moment of weakness, Yasser punches Tony in the stomach, breaking a few ribs. Tony demands an apology, but a bruised ego prevents Yasser from offering one. Things escalate and the next thing you know the two men are in court. The argument grows into something more symbolic when the fact that Tony is a conservative Christian and Yasser is a Palestinian enters into the equation. Soon, there are riots in the streets, security officers in the courtroom, endless sensationalistic news coverage, and suddenly a silly argument about a drain pipe is tearing an entire country apart.
This is of course a very political and personal film for co-writer/director Doueiri. He’s been around the industry for ages, even working on the crew of ‘Pulp Fiction’. He primarily works in Lebanon now and his movies tend to raise trouble. (He was arrested for one production and this movie opens with text ensuring audiences that the Lebanon government does support the ideas of the story.) His early works were rooted in the civil war of Lebanon and ‘The Insult’ very much springs from those old wounds. The seemingly inconsequential argument between two stubborn men easily transforms into a national feud bridged between politics and religion, because arguably that’s how these sorts of feuds began and continue to rage. It’s a very potent idea that Doueiri delights in stretching as far as he can for commentary, melodrama, satire, and any other means of rousing the audience in their seats.
By starting is such a small place and expanding into such a broad polemic, the filmmakers stretch credibility at times. The story has eye-rolling coincidences and a number of dramatic speeches and uses of symbolism so aggressively on-the-nose that they can get a little irritating and nauseating. However, the movie succeeds for two reasons. The first is just that it’s so damn well made. Acting is fantastic across the board, especially from the two leads who gamely play their stubborn characters as pricks who don’t deserve all the attention. Doueiri shoots and stages his film expertly, with constant flowing cameras escalating tension at all times so that every moment (big and small) hits with maximum impact. It might not even be until the whole story is over that you start to realize just how ridiculous it was.
The other reason it works is that, sadly, it doesn’t feel that exaggerated in the current political climate. We’ve entered an era when politics have the subtlety of team sports. Everyone picks a side and then the game is to scream loudly enough at the other side to shame them into submission without ever bothering to listen to each other.
While ‘The Insult’ is a very specific story about a very specific political situation, it’s also a broad parable about how important it is to actually listen to each other and show a little empathy for those who are different from ourselves, whether we agree with them or not. That’s a message that everyone could use right now, but since it doesn’t fit into a tidy hashtag or gather rage clicks, it’s not going to register at the moment (kind of like a couple Oscar-frontrunners that weirdly aren’t discussed for their clear messages of dismissing hatred and fear in favor of empathy and understanding). Hopefully a few people who see ‘The Insult’ will listen, though. It would be nice if we could all start having conversations again rather than living in a state of constant arguments.