Pride goeth before a fall. It’s a saying that’s as old as time. Or at least as old as The Book of Proverbs. And it’s also the underlying message of Lebanon’s official entry for this year’s best foreign film Oscar, The Insult — an ethically thorny morality play that thoughtfully transcends borders, cultures, and religious beliefs. Directed by Ziad Doueiri, who tilled equally fraught thematic soil in 2013’s The Attack, the film sparks off with a small personal slight that quickly spirals out of control into a meditation on identity, injustice, and social divisions.
Tony (Adel Karam) is a hardworking auto mechanic with a pregnant wife (Rita Hayek) who, one day, is hosing down the terrace of his Beirut apartment. Because of an improperly installed drainpipe that violates city codes, the run-off water drips onto the head of a construction foreman on the street below. The water-logged foreman’s name is Yasser (Kamel El Basha). Ticked off by being doused, Yasser tells his men to fix the pipe without Tony’s consent. This sets the hotheaded Tony off. Over the powerful-but-not-terribly-subtle next hour and a half, this molehill becomes an Everest-sized mountain.
Tony demands an apology from Yasser, and Yasser refuses to give him one. Instead, a flurry of heated personal insults ensues (Tony is a semi-bourgeois Christian, Yasser is a Palestinian refugee), and Yasser ends up socking Tony in the ribs, leading to a war of attrition to save face and not one, but two, legal trials that escalate into a referendum on not only who the wronged party is, but which one has the bigger claim to historical outrage.
This may all sound like pretty small stakes to hang an entire feature on, but this is the Middle East. Stakes regardless of their size can take on the weight of life and death. Plus, Doueiri is telling a larger story about Lebanon’s complicated and not-so-distant past — a past in which both Christians and Palestinians have at different times been treated as victims. There’s an element of academic history lesson to the film. But it never feels preachy or didactic. The script has enough compassion and blame to go around. Until the film’s finale, which flirts with becoming a too-neat after school special, The Insult is an honest and affecting argument for empathy, led by two excellent performances. These two men have more in common than they’re willing to admit. If only they weren’t too proud and too blind to see it. B+