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The Insult film review: Middle Eastern politics in focus in Oscar-nominated courtroom drama

What starts as an argument between a Palestinian and a Lebanese Christian quickly escalates into violence and legal exchanges in Ziad Doueiri’s film, which explores how institutionalised prejudices spread over the generations

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2018, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2018, 3:03pm

4/5 stars

A trivial disagreement escalates into a national event that reopens wounds from the Lebanese Civil War in Ziad Doueiri’s Oscar-nominated drama The Insult.

Skewering everything from fragile masculinity to unchecked genocide, the film explores how institutionalised prejudices spread over the generations, pitting neighbour against neighbour for reasons not easily articulated.

Car mechanic Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a devoted member of Lebanon’s Christian Party, is preparing for the birth of his first child. A construction team arrives to fix his leaking gutter, but Tony refuses to let Palestinian worker Yasser (Kamel El Basha) into his house. The gutter is fixed anyway, but Tony smashes it, provoking Yasser to insult him.

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When Tony demands an apology, the altercation quickly turns violent, and his wife Shirine’s (Rita Hayek) efforts to intervene result in the premature birth of their child. If the baby dies, Yasser could face manslaughter charges, while Tony’s own politically barbed comments awaken deep-seated resentments within the entire community.

Doueiri’s screenplay, co-written with his regular collaborator Joelle Touma, ensures the tough subject matter is kept accessible and engaging. The film identifies the seriousness of the men’s lingering hatred for each other, without ever condoning their behaviour. By injecting moments of humour and lightheartedness into the proceedings, we are never forced to take sides.

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The squabble then becomes an amusing pantomime that pits two generations of the same family against each other in the courtroom: Tony’s lawyer (Camille Salameh) lived through the horrors of the 15-year conflict, while his daughter (Diamand Bou Abboud), representing Yasser, grew up in the aftermath. Not only does this invite some amusing exchanges, but it also reflects how attitudes to the past have evolved.

El Basha was named best actor at the Venice film festival for his performance as the long-suffering Yasser, but Karam is every bit as impressive, with his bullheaded stubbornness proving infuriating and wholly relatable in equal measure. Bolstered by intelligent writing and polished, energetic direction, The Insult makes for stimulating viewing.

The Insult opens on June 14

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