Writer and director Ziad Doueiri has never been shy in tackling political, religious, and social issues that are too often deemed controversial in the Middle East. The Insult (titled Case Number 23 in Arabic), co-written by Doueiri and his writing partner Joelle Touma, is no different. In Doueiri’s last film, 2012’s The Attack, the director tackled a man’s struggle to come to terms with his wife’s choice to become a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv. In The Insult, Doueiri addresses the often complicated nature of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon and how one event can trigger chaos on a larger scale. Fluidly directed and tremendously layered, The Insult sorts through several dynamics and long-held views and taps into the feelings that feed into the nature of the unraveling events in the film. For wars might end, but that’s not where the conflicts stop.
Set in modern-day Lebanon, a Palestinian foreman, Yasser (Kamel El Basha), and his crew are preparing to do a lot of installation in a Lebanese Christian neighborhood to uphold safety regulations and legal requirements. Needing to install a damaged pipe, Yasser asks for permission to enter Tony’s (Adel Karam) home to assess the situation. Tony is stand-offish and immediately refuses entry after having heard Yasser speak in a distinct Palestinian dialect. Yasser decides to install the new pipe anyway and is frustrated when Tony gets angry and breaks the pipe. There are heated words exchanged and one insult leads to another. Finally, the two find each other in court, battling against each other for the upper hand in who’s right and wrong, who’s worthy of sympathy and who isn’t, and who “deserves” an apology. All the while, this conflict fuels the fire between certain factions in Lebanon and disrupts the men’s personal lives as well.
There’s just so much to unpack within The Insult. For many critics, this film may just seem like a courtroom drama, but every scene peels back a layer that gets us closer and closer to the core of the words traded. Having grown up in and around these arguments to an extent, and knowing these situations have long been prevalent in Lebanon, I can confirm that Doueiri has a handle on these issues. He understands them intimately and uses them to articulate just how deeply rooted they can be and how they can also trigger dissent on a larger scale. Fluidly directed and boasted by powerful cast performances, The Insult also asks the audience to take a look at their own long-held biases and shines a light on deeply political and social problems that many in the Middle Eastern region don’t necessarily face head on.
The film doesn’t take its time getting to the point and within twenty minutes, Tony and Yasser find themselves in an intense battle to prove the other is wrong. Both characters share many similarities: they’re stubborn and have a lot of pride and both have obvious triggers and biases. The major differences between them is that Tony has a temper, a short fuse and is very aggressive verbally. On the other hand, Yasser internalizes his feelings only to lash out later in different ways. Tony also plays up on the power he has as a Lebanese citizen and a member of a specific religious group; he uses this power in an attempt to destroy Yasser’s life, a life that doesn’t have many protections or a sense of equality due to his status as Palestinian refugee. More than that, The Insult touches on so many aspects of human conditioning, such as prejudice and how that impacts even the most daily aspects of our lives. It also flirts with how power dynamics come into effect inside and outside the courtroom in relation to how each person is perceived.
The Insult is significant in a way many other films are not. Between micro aggressions and pointed aggression, the words and actions of rage–fueled by years of pent up anger and a sense of unfairness, victimization, and blame–feel relevant and timely. And the beauty of the film is that it doesn’t just rely on the portrayal of the imperfections of humanity, but also goes out of its way to ensure that we see the decency and good that can crop up despite certain feelings. Tony and Yasser being civil to each other while Tony fixes Yasser’s car is a moment that sits with me. They’re leaving the president’s office, having refused to back out of the trial and when Yasser’s car stalls, Tony fixes it. That doesn’t mean anything’s changed, but it’s a moment of pause and peace amid a storm brewing around them.
Although the consequences of the trial envelop the neighborhoods where both men reside and, to a degree, go on to a national scale, many of the consequences are of a personal nature. Faced with the stress of the trial and her impatience with Tony’s hot temper, Shirine (Rita Hayek) and her pregnancy are affected. Meanwhile, Yasser is forced to face the possibility of losing his job (he isn’t a citizen, so his employment is much harder to get and keep) and is prepped to lose any goodwill he’s gained while living in the country. It’s a sad state of affairs and one that offers more of an inside look at the dynamics and what’s at stake. While the entire cast shines (really, all of the performances are phenomenal), it’s Adel Karam and Kamel El Basha who are the clear and obvious standouts. They excel in the dramatic moments and also the moments that require no words, just expression of the face and eyes. They envelop you in the story and bring so many dimensions to their characters.
There are certainly instances when the movie feels too on-the-nose and relies on the courtroom drama to make some of its biggest revelations and parallels. However, these things never sway or get in the way of the overall story. Doueiri’s film never falls on the dull side and that’s, in part, due to the swift pacing. Everything has a buildup and by the end of the film, you’ll find yourself invested in the outcome, even while questioning certain behaviors and discovering the reasons behind long-held prejudices, regardless of whether or not you agree with them.
Deep-rooted prejudices and mistreatment bubbles to the surface in The Insult. It’s the type of movie that’s filled with symbolism and masterfully executed to insight a powerful message. Conflict is never simple and as stated in the movie, wars may end, but they don’t stop just because the fighting ceases. Getting to the root of the problem is one thing, and coming to terms with it is another. Doueiri isn’t at all afraid to tackle controversy that others might shy away from and this film is an example of this. Who’s right and who’s wrong? What’s the solution? What happens after the dust settles and everyone goes back to their lives? Does anything change? The Insult doesn’t offer any easy answers (even though there is a final court decision), but it lays out plenty of evidence, provides introspection, and educates.