Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult” has much to teach Western audiences about life in Lebanon. Many Americans might not even know that the Middle Eastern country is an uneasy coalition of factions, with Muslims (both Shiite and Sunni) making up a majority, with another 40 percent Christians and 10 percent Palestinian.
But there’s a lot in “The Insult” that, sadly, we already know, about toxic masculinity, about grievance politics, about how a small dispute can flare up into a self-destructive tribal conflict. The Oscar-nominated film has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Saturday at a free screening at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall.
The fight starts over a gutter, of all things. Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) is a volatile mechanic with a pregnant wife. Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is a construction foreman working on renovating buildings on Hanna’s block.
The drainage system on Tony’s patio isn’t working properly, and Yasser and his crew get splashed with dirty water one day while Tony is cleaning his deck. Fuming, Yasser offers to fix the gutter, but Tony slams the door in his face. Yasser fixes it anyway. Tony angrily smashes the new gutter into pieces. Words are exchanged. Then someone is assaulted.
It seems like a disagreement easily resolved, but both men are too proud and angry to offer the other an apology. The feud escalates – Tony is a Christian, Yasser a Palestinian. Suits and countersuits are filed, and each man becomes a cause célèbre for their respective faction (both minorities) in Lebanese society.
By the time the case is done, what was once a squabble over a gutter will reference both the treatment of Palestinians and the Lebanese civil war of decades ago. The struggle in “The Insult” between two political sides, each armed with their own set of facts, each claiming to be the victim of the other, is dispiritingly familiar to those who follow American politics in 2018. If we can’t resolve a dispute over a gutter, what hope is there to tackle the larger problems in society? “We don’t solve this thing by pretending we love each other,” Tony snarls. “It could,” Yasser responds.
Doueiri, a Lebanese Christian who studied filmmaking in the United States (he was Quentin Tarantino’s camera operator on “Pulp Fiction”) heightens the tension with swirling camera moves and tight, aggressive close-ups, as if we’re literally getting in Yasser and Tony’s face. As he did in his 2012 film about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict “The Attack,” Doueiri isn’t afraid of wading into a thorny issue and making us understand the emotional thrust behind an unpopular viewpoint we might disagree with.
“The Insult” loses steam in its final act when it becomes a straight-up courtroom drama, the struggle shifting from Yasser and Tony to their two lawyers (who, in a somewhat unnecessary subplot, happen to be father and daughter). But perhaps it’s understandable that, like the characters, he can’t find a satisfying resolution to this dispute either.