Reminiscent of Asghar Farhadi’s string of complex moral puzzles, Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult begins with a microcosm of a concern – a dispute between a Palestinian foreman and Lebanese-Christian apartment owner – and examines the conflict through a political, cultural, and social lens. And like Farhadi’s work, Doueiri is committed to exposing certain unsavory clinical truths on human nature that so frequently inform our everyday lives, expanding far beyond its milieu. Plainly speaking: The Insult is timely. But whereas Farhadi’s appeal came from examining these moral quandaries through a culturally-specific Iranian worldview, Doueiri, toothlessly, reduces the conflict at the center of his film as a series of simplistic rejoinders. Confined mostly to a courtroom setting, The Insult pays lip service to confronting the real suffering and anxieties that course through the Middle East, optioning instead for a theatrical rendering of grief and resentment.
It prophetically begins with a dripping pipe attached to a patio. Tony (Adel Karam), a brutish mechanic, waters his plants as the runoff spills onto a construction crew below. The foreman, Yasser (Kamel El Basha), visits Tony in his apartment, offering to fix the faulty drain. Tony denies the offer, responding to Yasser by slamming the door in his face. Not easily deterred, Yasser covertly attempts to fix the pipe from outside Tony’s balcony – only for Tony to garishly destroy their work. Neither is willing to budge and tensions between the two intensify, eventually resulting in a physical altercation that sends both men to court.
Up to this point, The Insult more or less navigates an intriguing worldview that illustrates the volatile Lebanese terrain and the subsequent resentment politics that inform Tony’s bellicose attitude and Yasser’s stubbornness. While not especially subtle (Doueiri adopts various methods of highlighting the cultural divide between Palestinians and native Lebanese, from Tony attending a Christian Party rally to various news reports playing in the background throughout the film), the early passages of The Insult maintain a sense of urgency through its small town concerns. It speaks of micro-aggressions within their context and as such, ends up speaking to larger cultural questions. But it’s when the film takes its story to the courtroom, and where its minute interests extend to macro anxieties, that the film becomes a contemptuous exercise of vapid exaltations. Whether it be the dunderheaded narrative device of having Tony and Yasser’s competing attorneys be father and daughter or turning the petty argument into a national spectacle, The Insult betrays good taste by succumbing to every eye-roll-inducing cliché imaginable. The Insult imparts that the harsh reality of Lebanese politics can indeed crumble to open-heartedness, but Doueiri’s methods are rarely ever critical, instead relying on wishful thinking and saccharine sentiment to get his message across.