Ziad Doueiri, “The Insult” (2018)
On one level, this Lebanese film illustrates the power of an utterance to inflame hidden animosities and escalate them (in a rather melodramatic way) to a level where they apparently hold an entire nation in breathless thrall to their outcome. On another level, “The Insult” is a standard courtroom drama thriller that feels very manipulative yet pulls its punches when the various issues it raises become too much and too complex to handle within its narrow movie genre format. The plot and the themes might have been better dealt with in a mini-series that would also allow a deeper exploration of the main characters, their backgrounds and their motivations.
The film revolves around a chance encounter of two men, Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a mechanic, Christian Maronite by background and a supporter of the Kataeb Party founded by past Lebanese President-elect Bachir Gemayel (assassinated in 1982); and Yasser Salameh (Kamel el Basha), a Palestinian refugee. Hanna and his pregnant wife Shirin (Rita Hayek) live in a Beirut street undergoing repairs; their apartment balcony has an illegal drain attached to it that sprays water onto pedestrians below. A construction crew working in the street sees the water so foreman Salameh asks Hanna to let his crew correct the illegal drain pipe. Hanna refuses but Salameh and his men fix the drain pipe anyway. Hanna sabotages the work and Salameh swears at him. Hanna complains about Salameh to his boss Talal so Talal arranges for Salameh to meet Hanna to apologise to him personally. However when Salameh and Talal arrive at Hanna’s garage, the radio there is loudly blaring Gemayel’s anti-Palestinian diatribes so Salameh refuses to speak. Hanna taunts him with an inflammatory remark that mentions the name of former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, at which Salameh punches Hanna and breaks two of his ribs.
From then on, the action moves, as if predestined, from one incident into another. Some of these incidents are highly improbable except in a soap opera universe: one would think that Salameh, realising the trouble he is in, and having no rights as an alien in Lebanon, would try to disappear entirely instead of giving himself up to the police. Hanna and Salameh representing themselves in a magistrate’s court seems unlikely; what’s even more unlikely is that when their case escalates to a higher court and they need lawyers, Hanna’s lawyer Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), an establishment, pro-Gemayel supporter, and Salameh’s lawyer Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Bou Abboud) turn out to be father and daughter! At this point, the trial ought to have been aborted by the judge Colette Mansur (Rita Kassar) and new lawyers for the men appointed but it steams on ahead.
In the second court case, Hanna and Salameh’s backgrounds and possible motivations are drawn out in some detail as Wehbe senior and Wehbe junior argue back and forth in ways that flummox even the judges as well as the respective clients. The elder Wehbe discovers that Hanna himself is a refugee of a massacre of Christians in the village of Damour in early 1976 by leftist fighters aided by Palestinian militants. Salameh is found to have beaten a man (admittedly a soldier) so severely that the man becomes wheelchair-bound. Even Shirin’s history of miscarriages is dragged into the disputation as a possible factor in forcing her baby’s premature caesarean birth.
The pyrotechnics that erupt among Hanna and Salameh’s supporters in the courtroom spill out into the streets and into Lebanese news media with unfortunate consequences: the Hannas end up being stalked and their supporters chase a motorcyclist who ends up in a collision with a car.
While Karam and el Basha are good and intense in their roles, and Hayek evokes much sympathy as Hanna’s long-suffering wife, the film does have a calculating and manipulative feel as plot twist follows plot twist. Various hidden grievances come to the fore – in particular, Lebanese resentment at the presence of Palestinian refugees in their midst, sucking up jobs and social services, depressing wages, always wanting sympathy and attention for their problems, while Lebanese Christian victims of past Palestinian violence are ignored – but get superficial treatment. Stereotypes about Arab people abound: the men seem to be all excitable and immune to reason while the women are either rational or stoic in getting on with business and life generally. The Wehbe father and daughter pair are little more than stereotypes of an older cunning political conservative, pragmatic and slippery, versus an earnest if perhaps naive young liberal with so-called progressive opinions and views (and who ends up supporting faintly Communist baddie types). The film’s conclusion has all the appearance of being a stitched-up Band Aid solution that restores peace and stability without really dealing with the long-simmering frustrations and grievances behind Hanna and Salameh’s prejudices and enmity.
At times I wonder if “The Insult” was actually made more for a Western audience than for a Lebanese audience, as it seems to rely on gimmicks, stereotypes and tropes that faintly mock Lebanese people. Injecting identity politics where it’s not needed and presenting Lebanese society as though it were an ongoing soap opera melodrama seem disrespectful of the subject matter and the wider political and cultural issues that arise from it. We are all familiar with lawyers pushing their own agendas onto their clients, the news media sensationalising trials and various hangers-on wanting to profit from other people’s misery, and “The Insult” hammers all of these subplots onto the main plot for the purpose of building it up into something more outlandish and sensational than it should be. The result is rushed and often superficial as the subplots are never fully resolved: in one, the hapless motorcyclist gets no more than a minute or so on screen and disappears forever.
If Hanna and Salameh come to an understanding, it’s more through their shared experience of being little cogs in a machine system they cannot fully comprehend than through recognising similarities in their histories as victims of others’ violence. Viewers are likely to feel just as ground out by a manipulative plot that tries to plead for reconciliation and understanding but ends up not succeeding very well.