The Insult: Lebanon’s Complex History Fires Film’s Ambitions… With Mixed Results

By Liam Lacey


A trivial spat between a Christian mechanic and a Palestinian city worker sparks a national crisis in the Lebanese film The Insult. A well-paced courtroom drama hits most of the right buttons, showing how larger political forces play out in everyday exchanges, and how rage is the flipside of vulnerability. If The Insult ultimately feels a little too pat, that may be the unavoidable consequence of trying to find an edifying take on a recent history of traumatic violence.

A scene from the Oscar-nominated The Insult. 

A scene from the Oscar-nominated The Insult. 

The story starts in the gutter or, more precisely, in an eaves trough. Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) is a garage owner who attends pro-Christian right-wing political rallies and lives with his pregnant wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek) in a small Beirut apartment. When Tony washes down his balcony, water splashes down onto city worker Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha), who is fixing up the streetscape as part of an urban renewal project.

Yasser and his crew start to install an eaves trough on the side of Tony's balcony; Tony smashes it and Yasser curses him (insult number one) and Tony lodges a complaint. Yasser's boss brings his employee around to Tony's garage to apologize but it doesn't go well: "I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out," says Tony, a reference to the Israeli defence minister's role in failing to stop the massacre of Palestinian civilians by Lebanese militias in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in 1982. Yasser socks Tony in the stomach, breaking two ribs. A court date is set.

After the first judge tosses the case out as a petty squabble, there's an appeal, and the second trial is an opportunity for director Doueri to offer a few satiric barbs.   A careerist pro-Christian lawyer (Camille Salameh) takes on Tony's case, and the lawyer's social justice-inspired daughter (Diamand Bou Abboud) argues for Yasser's defence. 

Schisms form, not only along generational and ethnic lines, but gender as well, with both Tony's wife Shirine, and Yasser's spouse (Christine Choueiri) urging their husbands to acknowledge their mistakes and back down.  The media jumps on the story and opportunistic politicians weigh in, with one Muslim leader positing that even if Tony isn’t exactly an Israel lover, he's furthering the "Israeli agenda.”

As pissed-off as Tony and Yasser are with each other, neither is pleased when their lawyers want to promote them as representative victims by finding the points where the two middle-aged men's lives intersected with massacres during the civil war, which are presented with a cautious even-handedness. The two men even form a grudging bond.

If you know nothing else about Lebanon, you know it's politically complicated. For much of the last half-century, the country has been at the centre of regional Mideast tensions, invaded by Syria and Israel, and beset by sectarian conflict. The civil war (1975-1990) — characterized by mass violence against civilians — was not only between the Christian right versus a Muslim-leftist alliance, but with intra-Christian and Muslim infighting as well. 

The war has been the subject of extensive academic history, as well as novels and films and community memory projects in contemporary efforts at political reform and reconciliation. The Insult, which was co-written by Doueiri, raised as a left-wing Muslim, and his wife, Joelle Touma, raised as a right-wing Christian, is part of that reconciliation movement, an empathetic parable of the need for people to learn to get along.  

As well-meaning and crafted as the film is, it’s obvious and reductive, a Hollywood-ized version of history, which is no doubt the reason The Insult is up for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

The Insult. Directed by Ziad Doueiri and co-written by Doueri and Joelle Touma. Starring:  Adel Karam, Rita Hayek, Kamel El Basha, Camille Salamé and Diamand Bou Abboud. Opens January 26 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox; February 2 at Calgary’s Globe Cinema; and February 23 at Vancouver’s Vancity Theatre.