THE INSULT Review: Healing Wounds Held Open Too Long

How Lebanon’s Oscar contender explores cultural divides.

The impacting legacy of ethnic and religious conflicts is something that feels especially prescient in today's United States, where racial animosity and religious bigotry are more openly embraced than any time in this writer's lifetime (as relatively short as that may be). It's not that this bigotry wasn't always there, but it has never been culturally addressed to the point of reconciliation, and the tensions that have boiled under the surface of American culture have finally started to spill over the sides. Maybe it's that current domestic climate that makes The Insult feel so prescient, even if its setting should theoretically divorce it from the American perspective.

The Insult is a Lebanese film focused on two men: a Lebanese Christian named Tony (Adel Karam) and a Palestinian refugee named Yasser (Kamel El Basha). While Tony is cleaning off his apartment's balcony, water splashes down his rainpipe onto Yasser, who is working construction on Tony's street. Noticing that the gutter is not up to code, Yasser asks Tony if he may fix it. Tony, being a member of a political party that wishes to force Palestinians out of Lebanon, refuses Yasser entry to his apartment, but Yasser takes it upon himself to fix the gutter from the outside. Tony attacks the fixed gutter, and Yasser insults Tony for the outburst. What follows is an escalation that leads to not only violence between Tony and Yasser, but a community-wide excavation of deep-seated hatred and grievances for Lebanon's internal conflicts.

What's so engrossing about The Insult is how natural the film's escalation feels and how Tony and Yasser seem like real people who become caught up in a conflict larger than themselves. Even though Tony has bigoted attitudes toward Palestinians, at its core this is a disagreement between two men who have trouble admitting when their egos have taken them too far, so when the ensuing court battle between them becomes a proxy for the Christian-Palestinian conflict in their community, it spirals entirely out of their control. However, even among all the obvious social messaging, we never lose sight of that basic humanity.

This is in large part due to writer-director Ziad Doueiri (and co-writer Joelle Touma) having a deft eye for human relationship as well as human conflict, showing that sometimes the two aren't so far removed from one another. Disagreements over the role of Palestinians in this community don't break cleanly across family or generational lines, with some older folks clinging to war atrocities from their youth and younger folks finding a purpose in fighting off supposed invaders, while Palestinian sympathizers recognize that individual actions in wars past don't define present character, and many Palestinians had no part in that violence.

The Insult isn't entirely bleak in its messaging, so while it doesn't claim to have answers for how to broach the divide between Lebanese Christians and Palestinians, it does offer some hope in how Tony and Yasser grow from their experience. Empathy, patience, and understanding are the keys to peace, but sometimes wounds run too long and too deep for that peace to come easily or without further fighting or effort. What Doueiri has captured is something that at first appears allegorical but is in fact an exploration of how the literal small ways in which we treat one another have vast cultural implications. The Insult may have been made with a Lebanese audience in mind, but it sure feels relevant elsewhere throughout the world right about now.