Saturday 1 September 2018

Movie Review: The Insult (2017)

A courtroom drama centred on the legacy of the Lebanese Civil War, The Insult (original title Case Number 23) is a gripping tale about unresolved hatred eating away at the national psyche.

In modern-day Beirut, middle-aged Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) runs an auto repair shop and is a supporter of the hardline Christian Party, still harbouring deep emotional trauma from the Civil War that ended in 1990. His wife Shirine (Rita Hayek) is pregnant with their first child and wants to look forward, but Tony still consumes old tapes of assassinated firebrand Christian leader Bechir Gemayal spouting dogmatic anti-Palestinian rhetoric.

A disagreement over a balcony water spout sparks an exchange of insults between Tony and Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), a middle-aged Palestinian foreman for a municipal construction crew. Both men dig in, and eventually a punch is thrown. The matter lands in court, with Tony hiring high-profile lawyer Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), and Yasser settling for the much less experienced Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud) to represent him. The small matter of an insult becomes a national sensation, reopening festering wounds among survivors of atrocities on all sides.

Directed by Ziad Doueiri who also co-wrote the film with Joelle Touma, The Insult is a hard-hitting condemnation of Lebanon's failure to deal with its past. Through the story of two weary survivors getting into an argument, Doueiri burrows into the tender scar tissue of a country that papered over a barbarous conflict and refused to embark on anything resembling a meaningful truth and reconciliation process.

As a film, The Insult is at its best when dealing with the personal trauma of the two protagonist. With both Adel Karam and Kamel El Basha in fine form, the clash between Tony and Yasser exposes the nerves of a populace that has neither forgotten nor forgiven, and residents trying to get along only because all violent solutions failed. Tony is fiery, angry, and quick to express his rage.Yasser is more circumspect, in some ways more mature but also stubborn, proud and quietly passive aggressive.

From there Doueiri expands into honest expositions about the role the Palestinian conflict plays in Lebanese society, and asks whether all suffering is equal. Gradually the decades of trauma fermenting within Tony and Yasser's personal histories are brought to the surface, and the deep-rooted sense of a broken civil society composed of a layer cake of injustices presses against the two men.

Although the courtroom scenes are suitably chaotic and often gripping, the film's second half is weaker, and as Doueiri moves further away from the focus on Tony and Yasser, the narrative dilutes and fragments. Thankfully the film occasionally comes back to the two men circling each other, once over a car with a faulty starter and then in the shadow of night to rebalance the scorecard of insults. With all the preceding tumult, the ending appears rushed and less than satisfying.

Reliving the past grinds away at the future. Regardless of the verdict over an exchange of insults, Tony, Yasser, their families and broader societies cannot move ahead until the past is put in its place.

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