Review by © Jane Freebury
Screening at Palace Electric
Rated M, subtitled
The Insult begins with a petty altercation over a drainpipe that escalates with punches thrown and insults traded. The issue goes to court, is picked up by the media and spills out into the street and across the country.
If it were a story from somewhere more peaceful, it might take the form of a farce or a satire, but this is from Lebanon, so often in the headlines with its bitter civil war during the 1970s and 1980s. Old enmities are still deeply and fiercely felt.
It is the job of Yasser (Kamel el Basha), to fix faulty construction in the district, so he attaches a new piece of downpipe to a balcony outlet, but without permission. Apartment owner, Tony (Adel Karam), immediately leans over his balcony and smashes it to smithereens. Yasser swears at him, you ‘f—ing prick, not an unreasonable response in the circumstances.
The matter might have stopped there, at least with the big box of chocolates proffered in apology, but this exchange between these residents of Beirut won’t rest. Tony, a Lebanese Christian, recognises the foreman’s Palestinian accent, and takes things to court after an attempt at conciliation at his workshop ends in Tony saying something really wounding and Yasser punching him in the ribs.
Despite attempts by his pregnant wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek) to make him see reason, Tony escalates the matter to a higher court, hires a counsel and has his mild-mannered assailant charged with assault and the potential charge of manslaughter because Shirine has suffered a miscarriage, and their baby daughter is being kept alive in a humidicrib.
It’s in the courtroom that things in The Insult get really interesting. A scintillating duel between Tony’s counsel (Camille Salameh), a seasoned barrister, and a glamorous young woman (Diamand Bou Abboud), who turns out to be his daughter. With Nadine, a Palestinian sympathiser acting pro bono, and her urbane father Wajdi sympathising with the Christians, it makes for thrilling exchanges between them. The performances here are a joy to watch.
The screenplay was written by the director Ziad Doueiri, of Palestinian background, and his wife, Joelle Touma, a Christian, while they were divorcing apparently. Surely the differences between these two, ethnic and personal, has something to do with the well-honed debate.
More is revealed about the dark intransigence that Tony harbours. So much so, that it mitigated my view that he was overplayed by Karam. The dignified Yasser, on the other hand, who says little but commands considerable attention, is played with great presence by El Basha. The optimism of the film’s resolution of a conflict that has endured for generations could be wishful thinking but if it really is possible, then bring it on.
This fine film, Lebanon’s entry in the foreign film awards at the Oscars, has much to say and put questions to us all. It is clever, passionate and entertaining and sometimes exhilarating, even for observers like me on the sidelines.
Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle