Venice + Toronto 2017: Doueiri’s The Insult

On Film / The Daily — Sep 1, 2017

“A single slur becomes the lightning rod for a court case that grips but also bitterly divides a nation in The Insult, the latest feature from Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri (The Attack),” begins Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter. “The film pits a Palestinian construction worker—and technically a refugee—against the owner of a balcony he did some work on, a car mechanic who is part of a Christian political party in Lebanon. Their spat over a gutter leads to words, then blows and then a trial that becomes less and less about the insult and subsequent bodily harm and more and more about the morass of long-standing sectarian grievances that completely warp people's sense of justice.”

“The 450,000 refugees from Palestine now make up 10% of the population,” notes Kaleem Aftab at Cineuropa. “However, such is the broad nature of the commentary in The Insult that this tale could equally apply any place in the world where nationalism has a foothold and one group of people is pitted against another . . . It's in this hurricane of emotions that the titular insult is hurled. Toni (Adel Karam), a Lebanese Christian mechanic, gets upset at Yasser (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian foreman who is trying to fix Toni's gutter, despite being told not to do so. In the ensuing altercation, Toni screams, ‘I wish that Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.’ In response, the grey-haired Yasser breaks two of Toni's ribs, which leads to both men facing each other in court. The crux of the problem is not the insult, but rather that neither side is willing to apologize or see themselves as being in the wrong.”

“An entertaining meld of character study, courtroom stand-off and national reconciliation parable, The Insult is rooted in Lebanon’s tense ethnic and religious mix and the unhealed scars of the fifteen-year Civil War that ended in 1990,” writes Screen’s Lee Marshall. “In a country that is a weathervane for Middle Eastern tensions, it’s a bold and timely play with fire, but also a sensitive, good-humored probe into human weakness—especially of the male kind.”

“Doueiri—who was Tarantino’s first assistant camera up until Jackie Brown—based this story on a real-life argument he had with a plumber he insulted—similarly to the film—when he was living in the pro-Palestinian side of Beirut,” notes Upcoming editor Filippo L’Astorina. “He worked on the script with his ex-wife, who was from the Christian side, while they were divorcing. The result is the tale of a local incident with universal resonance.”

Variety’s Jay Weissberg finds that Doueiri and Touma “certainly do their best to stir things up, pitching emotions at an overly dramatic level only to offer concessions at the end that feel far too pre-packaged for movie consumption. Clearly there’s some concern, which is why a disclaimer at the start warns that the film doesn’t necessarily reflect the views and policy of the Lebanese government.”

“The two men—so the thesis goes—have more in common than they know,” writes John Bleasdale at CineVue. “They are both manual workers who make or fix things, workmen who take pride in what they do. . . . In one scene, Yasser can't start his car and Toni is unable to resist fixing it. But historical grievance and memories of personal tragedy get in the way again and again. By the end, The Insult has become bifurcated, with the conventional courtroom drama heading to a sop of a denouement even though the men themselves have provided the film with a much more effective resolution in a preceding scene. The film can't be faulted for its attempt to argue for some kind of humane kinship and reconciliation, even if this attempt ends up dissolving the enmity in a sentimentality that, given what has come before, strains credibility.”

Updates, 9/2: Cohen Media Group has picked up North American distribution rights, reports Variety’s Elsa Keslassy.

“As drama, The Insult is only about halfway convincing, but as a rhetorical intervention against Lebanon’s legacy of division it has merit,” writes Adam Nayman for Cinema Scope.

Updates, 9/6: “Working its way through courtroom arguments, the movie never transcends the main tension established early on, but Doueiri does a competent job of exploring the sources of anger on both sides without valorizing either of them,” writes IndieWire’s Eric Kohn.

“You know, I’ve developed a knack for insulting people very, very expertly,” Doueiri tells Kaleem Aftab at Cineuropa. “It's like over time I have learned how to insult people in a way that will hurt them the most. My girlfriend at the time [now his wife and co-screenwriter, Joëlle Touma] said, ‘How could you talk to a Palestinian like that?’ So I went down to the guy as he was cleaning the streets, and I said, ‘Look, I apologize.’ He couldn't even look me in the eyes; he was very, very hurt.”

Update, 9/8: “How Joëlle Touma’s script progresses is heavy-handed in its desire to augment the tensions and provide justifications, but it’s still powerful nonetheless,” writes Jared Mobarak at the Film Stage, “You may initially believe one man over-reacted more than the other with both seeming guilty in equal measure, but prepare to wonder if both are actually innocent as more secrets and truths are revealed.”

Update, 9/11: “Doueiri said Monday that his detention at Beirut airport and subsequent questioning by a military tribunal were an attempt to suppress his new film, The Insult, which just won a prize at the Venice Film Festival and is Lebanon’s candidate for the foreign-language Oscar,” reports Nick Vivarelli. “Doueiri spoke to Variety after being grilled for three hours Monday by a Lebanese military panel about his previous film, The Attack, which was partly shot in Israel. Lebanon bans its citizens from visiting Israel, because it is officially at war with the Jewish state. After his interrogation by the tribunal, Doueiri was released without charge, and his French and Lebanese passports, which had been confiscated at the airport, were returned to him. Doueiri said his detention and court summons were clearly timed to disrupt the release of The Insult, which is slated to premiere in Lebanon on Tuesday.”

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