* * 1/2
Zine Doueiri’s The Insult arrives in Australia a big deal, loaded down with awards, nominations, plaudits and (relatively) boffo box office in other markets. It was nominated this year for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award (a first for Lebanon), it won the Audience Award for narrative feature at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, and one of its two lead actors, Kamel El Basha, won the Best Actor award at Venice. It’s nominated for nine Lebanese Movie Awards but, I daresay, given its agenda (more on that below), is unlikely to sweep the field.
It’s easy to see why the film has done so well, particularly outside of Lebanon. It runs with precise engineering, offering the viewer an almost exhausting roller coaster ride of conflicting emotions. It is designed to make your blood run hot and cold, and it does. It is also fatally hindered by some egregious errors of judgement or polemical politics, depending on how personally you take Douheiri’s stake in his own script.
Tony (Adel Karam) is a Lebanese Christian, member of a vocal right-wing, nationalistic, anti-immigration Christian Party, and mechanic living in Beirut. One day he trades some bad civil behaviour with a contractor doing work on his street, Yasser (El Basha), who happens to be a Palestinian refugee. Things escalate, get out of hand, and end up not only in the courtroom, but all over the media, and, in some quarters, with violence.
Tony and Yasser obviously, deliberately and unapologetically represent opposing sides in the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990, and, as a blatant metaphor for the dumb ways ideological conflicts can rise out of misplaced pride, vanity and, especially in the Middle East, “machismo”, the film works smoothly and effectively. If only men weren’t so damn stubborn, so much suffering could be avoided! It’s also a very clean plot mechanism to keep us thoroughly engaged: by the nature of the men’s increasing insults (in every sense of the word), the film naturally keeps raising the stakes almost on a scene-by-scene basis. Conflict is drama; conflict with high stakes is better drama; legal conflict with national implications, therefore, must be great drama.
Except – and it’s a big exception – Tony is such a deeply unlikeable protagonist that the film is hard to stomach. The party whose leader’s inflammatory speeches pepper the film through Tony’s televisions are full of hateful rhetoric, and Tony is a hateful guy; he’s racist, a nationalist, a bigot. I gave up on him long before the film did, and when, in its closing act, it introduced a massive, dramatically over-bearing rationale for his behaviour, it not only lost me completely but angered me to boot. Tony’s lawyer, and, by extension, Doueiri, seems to be claiming that bigotry is justified by past trauma, which is not a message I can get behind, let alone in the current climate. Palestinians are upset by this film, and it’s easy to see why. Yasser is depicted as a noble character, but the film is really on Tony’s side. Sympathy for the devil, indeed.