Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Review: "The Insult"

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.
            --Proverbs 16:18

The (often misquoted) Bible verse encapsulates the theme of “The Insult,” about two prideful men who steer themselves and their families toward their downfalls over a trivial encounter. This film, which has deservedly been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, is a lesson in how inconsequential conflicts can amass themselves into major cultural/political clashes.

The quote is also applicable in that the center of the men’s antipathy is over religious matters. Set in modern-day Beirut, it’s about a native Lebanese Christian who resents a Palestinian Muslim refugee.

Though very much alike in outward ways -- both hard-working, middle-aged men who lead others in blue-collar vocations -- they can’t get past the basic determination of who “belongs” more to the community, and therefore has status to give or accept an apology. It’s not hard to see how these sorts of issues translate easily to our own shores.

Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), known universally as “Mister Tony,” is in his 40s, a bit gruff, runs a thriving auto repair shop, is about to have his first child with his wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek). He attends Christian Party rallies and blares xenophobic talk radio in his shop all day, inviting complaining refugees to go back where they came from.

(If you’ve ever hung out in a red state auto shop, as I have, you’ll find the timbre of the host not so different from Rush Limbaugh or the like.)

Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is older, 60-ish, a civil engineer overseeing construction/repair projects in Mister Tony’s neighborhood. When he points out that the latter’s balcony drain pipe is in violation of code, Yasser’s Palestinian accent gives him away and his offer to fix it is haughtily refused.

Yasser decides to do it anyway, words are exchanged, Mister Tony demands an apology, and a bit more -- he wants the older fellow to prostrate himself, which he will not do. Neither man’s pride will budge, eventually leading to violence, injury and a lawsuit.

At this point the story turns over to the courtroom, and I’ll admit that a Lebanese legal drama is a rather novel experience for me. The mechanics are a bit different -- three judges, no jury, the attorneys are allowed to cross-talk each other to a large degree -- but from a storytelling standpoint, it’s not terribly different from “The Verdict” or similar American fare.

The case becomes a media sensation, with Christians and Palestinians clashing in the courtroom audience, and later in the streets, in the latest cause célèbre between the factions. Camille Salameh is Yasser’s attorney, who makes the provocative argument that Mister Tony’s insult was so extreme as to cause distress to a member of (in the Arab mind) a persecuted people.

Diamond Bou Abboud steals the show as Mister Tony’s litigator, Wajdi Wehbe, an intense, pint-sized show-boater with a blade for a tongue. He works closely with the ruling government, recently losing a big case defending a senior minister, and is looking to rebuild his reputation.

Directed by Ziad Doueiri (“The Attack”) from a screenplay he cowrote with Joelle Touma, “The Insult” is a marvelously acted, taut story about how difficult it can be to “turn the page” on past depredation. Either to hurt someone, or to be hurt, leaves a mark that cannot be erased as easily as we’d like to think.

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