Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult begins with an accident: a drainpipe leaks dirty water from the balcony of Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) and splashes Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha), the foreman of a construction company. It’s the kind of feud that could be easily resolved, if these were different men living in a different city at a different time.
But they’re not—Tony is a Lebanese Christian who owns his own garage and watches fiery rallies on TV while he works. Yasser is an older Palestinian immigrant who used to be a civil engineer, but now, as a refugee, can only get hired for construction jobs. The setting is modern-day Beirut, still feeling the reverberations of the Lebanese Civil War that ended almost 30 years earlier. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the conflict, it’s recognizable: Two people are conditioned to hate each other, which allows a misunderstanding to snowball out of control. Things get ugly real fast—soon, the whole country is watching their fight play out in a courtroom.
Both men claim victimhood, blaming each other for the escalation. Nowhere is this division illustrated more clearly than in the courtroom scenes, with Christians and Palestinians yelling at each other across the aisle, reenacting a war many of them are too young to remember. Unfortunately, this is where Doueiri loses the plot, which gets bogged down with soapy twists and forced irony, like when Tony tells his wife that he can’t drop the case because “I’m no Jesus Christ who will turn the other cheek,” or when he exclaims, “I didn’t want it to be political!”
The Insult works best when Doueiri spends time examining the root system of hate. His characters are presented with hard questions: Is truth ever objective? Is it possible to separate the personal from the political? The Insult doesn’t offer any answers—instead, it simply presents the reasons why two men might risk everything over a leaky drainpipe.