There's never any point in nursing a grudge, unless you're telling a story—then it's a great idea. Ziad Doueiri's Lebanese drama The Insult, nominated for an Oscar in the foreign-language category, tracks the escalating conflict between two stubborn men in Beirut. Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), an auto mechanic hopped up on the nativist politics of a right-wing Christian party, is hosing down his apartment balcony overlooking the street when Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian refugee supervising a nearby construction project, comes to Tony's door to complain about a leaky gutter that's dropping water on passersby. Tony slams the door in his face, and when Yasser orders his workmen to repair the balcony gutter, Tony uses a hammer to smash the connecting pipe they've just installed, provoking an obscenity from Yasser below. Various attempts by Yasser's boss to smooth over the situation culminate in Tony telling Yasser, "I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out," and Yasser punching him in the ribs.
These early scenes kept reminding me of Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning Iranian drama A Separation (2011), which followed the antagonism between a secular family man and a hotheaded Muslim fundamentalist. In both films a personal conflict spirals out of control, becoming a matter of honor for the aggrieved parties and tapping into their deeply held prejudices. Tony and Yasser's mutual antipathy reaches back to the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut, when hundreds (or, more probably, thousands) of Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites were slaughtered by militiamen allied with Lebanon's right-wing, Christian Kataeb Party and ignored by Sharon's Israeli Defense Forces. Given this fraught history, I was eager to learn more about Yasser's life inside a refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut, and about the city's Christian political forces that adopt Tony as a mascot.
Unfortunately The Insult heads straight into court, where Yasser is acquitted of assault, Tony retaliates with a civil suit, and his Ariel Sharon remark ignites a media circus. Doueiri, who shot some of Quentin Tarantino's early films, enthuses in press notes that "Americans have always used court trials to put historical and societal issues on the table. . . . It's a sort of modern take on the western, but played in a closed setting." Tony's cause is taken up by a pinky-ring lawyer (Camille Salameh) partial to the Christian right, and Yasser reluctantly accepts a pro bono defense from a young liberal attorney (Diamand Bou Abboud) who—wouldn't you know it?—is the prosecutor's daughter. Indulged by a passive judge, these two showboats turn the trial into a public forum on the Palestinian question and the main characters into silent men with folded hands. We may not be able to export democracy to the Middle East, but exporting Law & Order has been a piece of cake. v