When construction foreman Yasser (Kamel El Basha) insults Tony (Adel Karam) after the latter, in a fit of rage, violently destroys the guttering Yasser and his crew have fixed, their heated words threaten to escalate to citywide riots. The note-perfect first half of Ziad Doueiri‘s compelling drama focuses on these two characters – a Palestinian refugee and a Lebanese Christian – and both actors excel in their respective roles. Karam’s facial tics and stature brilliantly betray a man whose broiling anger is always at surface level and could have been set off by any catalyst, as long as the altercation chimed with the anti-Palestinian propaganda he watches on TV. As for El Basha, who won the Best Actor award in Venice last year for his similarly deft portrayal, he excels at articulating the deep-seated unease of a man who has not only become reticently adept at internalising his emotions, but someone who’s all too aware that their civilian argument is rooted deeper than a mere cock fight for prideful vindication.
The Insult only starts to tailspin when more generic courtroom scenes take over, and especially when a certain familial revelation comes to the fore. This particular narrative curveball clumsily undermines what preceded it and has a false, telenovela-like ring to it. Still, Doueiri manages to keep things on track by maintaining a snappy pace and by refocusing on the two complicated parties. He pleads for more empathy in the face of past and present trauma, and the timely parallels are easy to draw with both present day Lebanon and with other countries around the world, where pent-up anger and a media circus can quickly lead to uninformed, hate-filled scaremongering and much worse. Weaker though some of the second half may be (with a bombastic score that feels too on-the-nose), it doesn’t eclipse a powerfully acted and thoughtful portrait of personal prejudice, toxic male ego and, on a grander scale, the simmering sectarian tensions that threaten to escalate in a divided country.
L’Insulte (The Insult) | Directed by Ziad Doueiri (Lebanon, Cyprus, France, 2017), with Kamel El Basha, Adel Karam. Starts October 25.
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