The world probably would be a better place if we all kept our mouths shut. Or, at least that’s the takeaway from “The Insult,” (Winner of Cinema Without Borders’ Bridging The Borders Award) the Oscar-nominated courtroom drama from former Quentin Tarantino sidekick Ziad Doueiri.
In it, the Lebanon native takes a harsh look at his homeland and the uneasy alliance between the ruling Christians and the ever-expanding Muslim population, many of whom are exiled Palestinians. Their distrust for each other reaches back decades to a brutal civil war that lasted 15 years and frustratingly ended without closure or reprimands for those involved in numerous atrocities. That Doueiri is able to boil this cauldron of hatred and distrust down to a battle between two men – one Muslim, one Christian – is a pretty nifty feat. And although he dilutes the overall impact by inducing a plethora of Hollywood clichés, Doueiri never fails to leave a lasting impression.
It all begins when Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a Christian with a pregnant wife (Rita Hayek) and fledgling auto repair business, is innocently washing down the patio outside his condo in a Beirut high-rise. Due to a faulty drain, the water splashes down below on Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian refugee working as a foreman on a construction project directly across the street. Understandably upset, Yasser marches up to Tony’s door to inform him of his illegal drainage pipe; news that gets the door promptly slammed in his face. So Yasser orders his crew to go ahead and repair the drain anyway, which it does. To which Tony responds by smashing the new pipe with a hammer and inspiring Yasser to retort with an insulting expletive.
Urged by his boss to apologize, Yasser reluctantly marches over to Tony’s auto shop to do just that. But before he can open his mouth, Tony blurts out an even more hurtful insult, telling Yasser that “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.” The slight made in reference to speculation that Israel’s defense minister was behind 1982′s Sabra and Shatila massacre in which thousands of Lebanese Muslims were slaughtered by Israeli troops, an incident hauntingly depicted a few years ago in the disturbing “Waltz with Bashir.”
This affront only escalates the budding feud and ends with Yasser punching Tony in the gut, breaking two ribs. So, it’s off to court we go with not one, but two trials, the second of which is the most shamelessly Hollywood, complete with father-daughter barristers (Camille Salameh and Diamond Bou Abboud) facing off and an O.J.-like media circus stirring unrest in the streets. There’s also a last-minute twist invoking another massacre, this one the 1976 attack on Damour resulting in the deaths of nearly 600 unarmed Christians at the hands of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its allies.
While the truisms come fast and furious (think of an episode of “Perry Mason”), the underlying theme of hypocritical people willing to kill in the name of religion never fails to land its punches. It stings, too. And the excellent performances by all involved — especially El Basha as Yasser — deepen the impact of a movie that, if nothing else, is hugely entertaining. But as much as I admired “The Insult,” I had to wonder how it — and not more deserving pictures like the Golden Globe-winning “In the Fade” and the superb Israeli entry, “Foxtrot” – caught the fancy of fickle Oscar voters. And I’m still wondering.
Could it be because Doueiri was recently arrested and momentarily detained in Beirut over charges of being a traitor –not because of “The Insult,” but because of his last film, 2012′s “The Attack,” which was deemed to be too sympathetic to Israel? It would make sense since politics often play a role in the Oscar category of Best Foreign Language film. One only need look back one year to when Iran’s Asghar Farhadi, a victim of Trump’s travel ban, won the sympathy vote – and the Oscar — for “The Salesman” over the heavily favored “Toni Erdmann.” How ironic to see Academy voters introducing politics into honoring a movie about the divisiveness of politics.
No matter, “The Insult” is good enough to stand on its own, awards or no awards. And it’s a must-see, especially with nationalism coming to the fore in our own country. In fact, you might even notice one or two Trumpisms in the dialogue; just substitute Republicans and Democrats for Christians and Muslims. But whether it’s here or over there, the hatred is universally destructive. And if we’re to speak out, “The Insult reminds that we must be careful with what we say, because even the most innocuous of words can match bullets and bombs in their ability to destroy a man’s soul.