The Insult a Brilliant Look at the Stupidity of Ethnic Conflict

Directed by Ziad Doueri
Diaphana Films, 112 minutes, R (which is ridiculous!)
In Arabic and French with subtitles

The Insult is a powerful portrait in miniature of the tragedies of tribalism. I’m glad I wasn’t on the Oscar selection committee, as I don’t know how would have voted for Best Foreign Film given a choice between this film and A Fantastic Woman. Seldom have I seen such a cogent exploration of how little it takes to ignite ancient hatred or how those who started the fire can stand idly by even after they regret striking the first match.

The Insult is set in a section of Beirut, Lebanon in which many Palestinians reside. Some come from old families, some are refugees, and some are illegal. Things are looking up; after a long civil war, things are actually being built and rebuilt in Beirut. That’s where we come in. A construction crew headed by Yasser (Kamel El Basha) is rehabbing infrastructure when suddenly he is doused with water running from a makeshift drainpipe on a terrace above him occupied by Tony (Abdel Karam) and his pregnant wife Shirine (Rita Hayek). A rebuffed offer to repair the illegal pipe touches off a tit-for-tat dispute in which harsh words are uttered. If this sounds like your routine neighborhood squabble, your neck of the woods isn’t a slice of Beirut where Maronite Christians live cheek by jowl with Palestinian Muslims. Nor is it one in which Christians like Tony diet on incendiary broadcasts that make our radio shock jocks seem like Eagle Scouts and nasties like the PLO and Hezbollah stand ready to declare jihad over spilt water. And it’s surely not one where a hotheaded swear can be grounds for a libel suit or a hate crimes countersuit.

The big picture is that Tony and Yasser are caught in a historical maelstrom. Lebanon gained its independence from France in 1945 and once enjoyed a reputation as the playground of the Middle East, its beaches and flourishing network of vices a destination for Euro jetsetters. (Think Cuba before Castro.) It is blessed by beauty and cursed by geography; its next-door neighbors are Israel, Syria, and the Golan Heights. For a while the lid remained on the pot because of an agreement that Christians would control 55% of government offices, including the presidency (a Maronite) and the Deputy Prime Minister (Greek Orthodox). The Prime Minister, though, would be a Shi’te Muslim and his deputy a Sunni. Censuses were avoided like a Biblical/Quranic plague. In 1975, the pot boiled over and scalded Lebanon with a civil war that lasted until 1990, sent a million Lebanese into exodus, and left 120,000 dead. Along the way there were U.S. interventions and withdrawals, an Israeli invasion to punish Hezbollah, and a Syrian occupation that began in 1976 and ended only in 2005. Since then, as a character in The Insult observes, there has been fragile peace, “but no reconciliation.”  

Tony and Yasser are the blue-collar microcosm of Lebanon’s sad history. Tony is an auto mechanic and Yasser a construction worker who is just as devoted to his wife, Manal (Christine Choueiri) as Tony to Shirine, yet neither man can take their wife's advice to settle their dispute. There is far more than pigheaded manhood at stake; each, we discover, were pawns in past massacres and each bears the scars—Tony through his anger and Yasser his smoldering stoicism. There is a poignant moment in which a failed reconciliation ends with Tony driving away, but Yasser sitting in a stalled car. Tony backs up, lifts the hood, and fixes the car; Tony glares without conviction and Yasser nods with a Mona Lisa smile upon his lips. Both men secretly long to end the feud. But is it too late?

Gandhi famously observed that, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” If you think this little more than a na├»ve aphorism, watch The Insult and reconsider. Both principal actors are superb in this film, but hatred is the unaccredited lead. This film hit me personally. I came of age during the Vietnam War, which appeared utter madness and turned me into the pacifist I remain. In my life, I have seen nothing over which people fight that justifies the horrors that ensue. The Insult drove that home anew. Ultimately, Gandhi is correct. So too was John F. Kennedy, who observed, "Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind." The Insult is about more than a personal conflict elevated to widespread tragedy; it is a weeping planet’s lament.

Rob Weir

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