The most surprising inclusion among this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees was The Insult (L’insulte), a Lebanese drama. It nabbed a slot over the highly touted German film In the Fade, which earned Diane Kruger the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, and edged out critical favorites from Israel (Foxtrot) and Senegal (Felicite). Still, it’s easy to see how The Insult made the list. This is an issue movie that deals very directly—at times extremely bluntly—with the subject of political discord.
At first, the movie comes on like a Kafka story. In Beirut, two men clash over a very minor incident in the street one summer day. Insults are exchanged, and egos bruised. Almost immediately, this stupid encounter escalates into a physical altercation, a pointless court case, and a national argument.
How did they get here? Good old nationalism and racism have a lot to do with it. One man, Tony (Adel Karam), is a garage owner and husband to a pregnant wife (Rita Hayek). But he’s also a rabid member of Lebanon’s Christian party, and listens to xenophobic propaganda that blames Lebanon’s problems on its Palestinian refugees. The other man, Yasser (Kamel El Basha), is a Palestinian. He’s risen to the rank of foreman in a construction crew, but he’s too prideful to offer an apology when he needs to. Their mule-headed stand-off results in a courtroom showdown that dredges up painful feelings from Lebanon’s civil war (which ended in 1990). Director Ziad Doueiri skillfully makes this comprehensible to viewers not versed in the conflict, while showing how complicated the allegiances are.
The actors are strong, although Doueiri generally has them over-playing; this is the kind of film where every reaction shot contains extra gas. The movie pushes the parallels between its adversaries—how they are more alike than different—a little too strongly at times, but thankfully Doueiri knows this case is too thorny to end happily. When it’s at its best, The Insult makes it clear that this tale is not merely about Lebanese history. This is about the way our public discourse has become so degraded that people seem incapable of civilized exchange.
Nobody in the film really listens. All they hear is the insult—and when there isn’t an insult, they hear one anyway. No wonder this one seemed so timely to the Oscar voters.