Following a minor squabble between right-wing Christian Phalangist Toni (Adel Karam) and Palestinian refugee Yasser (Kamel El-Basha) over a broken drainpipe, egos begin to puff up. Yasser, who was fixing the pipe, utters the first — minor — insult, and his employer forces him to apologize so relations with residents remain cordial.
When Toni senses that the apology is half-hearted, he throws a deplorable insult at Yasser, who quickly realizes this is about much more than a drainpipe. Aggravated by an incendiary speech against Palestinians playing on repeat in the background of Toni’s garage, Yasser punches him, breaking a couple of his ribs, and gets sued for damages.
The case is quickly thrown out of court by the judge, who realizes what the conflict is really about. They are both released, but Toni refuses to let it go. With a speed neither man could foresee, what began as a silly argument escalates into a national conflict.
Karam and El-Basha deliver fantastic visceral performances, as do actresses Rita Hayek and Christine Choueiri, who play their wives. Diamand Bou Habib, who portrays Yasser’s impassioned lawyer, is wonderful against Toni’s witty and pugnacious lawyer, played by the brilliant Camille Salameh, whose character uses the case as a second chance to win the “Christian cause” he had lost in court as a younger man. He provides much-needed comic relief, lightening the mood when the intensity is at its highest.
“The Insult” shows how prejudices created by the wounds of Lebanon’s civil war escalate seamlessly into a political conflict. It is a conflict only the protagonists can solve, one reluctant to make peace with his past, the other with a past and present he is still very much living.
The conflict ensnares not only supporters of the protagonists but also their wives, who try to bring out their humane side. A further twist reveals a generational conflict — the elder, who still lives the war vividly, and the younger, who wants to move on from a conflict he empathizes with but did not endure.
This film is mostly about internal conflict within characters manifesting externally, about making peace with oneself as well as with the country’s history, about finally removing the band aid and treating the damage of war so they can heal.
Toni’s complex character begins to show hints of humanity, and as his lawyer dredges up his past, we discover the personal tragedy that led to his animus toward Palestinians. But what about what Yasser has been through? He fled his country to Jordan, then had to settle in Lebanon in a refugee camp.
The film does not try to judge whose conflict is worst; no one can judge how a personal experience can affect someone. It is up to the characters themselves to come to terms with it. Ultimately, Yasser is older and more enlightened than Toni. Yasser has the wisdom we feel Toni begins to acquire by the end of the film.
As one of the many former warlords declares during a TV interview aimed at Toni, it is time for those wounds to heal. The protagonists’ humanity prevails in the end, illustrated by two powerfully touching scenes. Perhaps this can be used as a lesson for us now and in the future.
This is the first time a Lebanese film has been nominated for an Oscar, and it deserves all the success it is receiving internationally. Hopefully, it will pave the way for many more Lebanese films.
• Tala Ramadan is a Lebanese screenwriter and producer.