“The Insult” is a Lebanese film that navigates the rocky landscape of ethnic tensions, systematic prejudice and victimization. Earning an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, “The Insult” seeks to explore the complexities surrounding Palestinian immigration into Lebanon through an allegorical narrative of a Lebanese Christian suing a Palestinian refugee in court. The film works like a courtroom drama, in which the ethnic divide between Lebanese and Palestinian is examined and challenged through the framework of legality.
The conflict that sets the premise for the entire film comes almost immediately — Lebanese resident Toni (Adel Karam, “Caramel”) gets angry when Palestinian foreman Yasser (Kamel El Basha, “Love, Theft and Other Entanglements”) fixes his gutter. Yasser throws a derogatory slur at Toni, and Toni demands an apology. But when Yasser goes to apologize, Toni throws a derogatory slur right back, causing Yasser to punch him in the stomach. The exchange of insults leads Toni to take Yasser to court, and the following length of the film examines the underlying tensions behind this petty and inconsequential incident.
The beginning of “The Insult” is clumsy and nonsensical. Toni appears irrationally angry and hostile towards Yasser, who is doing his job with a polite and calm demeanor. The binary between Lebanese Christians and Palestinian refugees is established early on, and is the clear reason for Toni’s hostility, but the lack of back story for either character makes the confrontation seem one-dimensional and archetypal. The pacing is rapid, making Toni’s decision to sue seem confusing and melodramatic. The film’s failure to ground itself and its preoccupations with ethnic tension in its first act weakens the gravity of the film as a whole — Toni and Yasser’s anger towards each other doesn’t translate seamlessly into internalized prejudice, but instead comes off as petty anger.
The court room scenes take up the entire second and third acts. The court room allegory is a somewhat effective tool for analyzing perspective in victimhood and creating an empathetic link between two characters who are victims of trauma and displacement. However, most of the time, these scenes are extremely tedious and static, with little physical or narrative movement. Ultimately, the stage on which the film chooses to set its discussion of ethnic divide is an uncompelling one, weighted down by dramatic clichés and repetitive imagery.
While Karam and El Basha deliver solid, if simplistic, performances, the women of the film stand as the most compelling characters. Rita Hayek (“Kafa: Enough”) plays Toni’s wife, a strong and outspoken woman who acts as the moral compass for Toni and the audience. Diamand Bou Abboud (“In Syria”) plays Yasser’s calculated, capable lawyer and Julia Kassar commands the film as the firm but rational judge. The women in this film are all incredibly strong and thoughtful characters; their actions drive the fate of the men whose stubbornness, pride and bouts of anger lead them to fall in a sinkhole of a larger national conversation.
Ultimately, “The Insult” does manage to communicate the impact of trauma in cementing ethnic prejudice, as well as the complicated landscape of contemporary Lebanon. The film seeks to explore silenced parts of Lebanese history, showing that identities rooted in tragedies of the past (the civil war in 1990, for example) have profound lifelong impacts. With its final images, “The Insult” resonates with a heavy understanding of irrational hatred and the power of human empathy to peek through the haze.