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Film Review: ‘The Insult’ Dives Fearlessly into a World Fractured by Political and Religious Tensions5 min read

8 December 2020 4 min read


Film Review: ‘The Insult’ Dives Fearlessly into a World Fractured by Political and Religious Tensions5 min read

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In today’s Beirut, an insult blown out of proportions finds Toni, a Lebanese Christian, and Yasser, a Palestinian refugee, in court. From secret wounds to traumatic revelations, the media circus surrounding the case puts Lebanon through a social explosion, forcing Toni and Yasser to reconsider their lives and prejudices.

Director: Ziad Doueiri

Cast: Adam Karam, Kamel El Basha, Rita Hayek, Camille Salameh

Year: 2017 

Country: Lebanon 

Language: Arabic

Runtime: 112 minutes


Deserving of its nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in the Academy Awards, The Insult is a must-watch courtroom drama that will open your eyes to a world plagued with political and religious conflict. As its title suggests, the film descends into unimaginable chaos when Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian refugee and foreman, insults Christian Lebanese Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) because Tony violently disrupts Yasser from fixing the drainage pipe outside his – Tony’s – house. 

When Yasser refuses to apologise, Tony aggravates him with a terrible insult, inciting Yasser to punch Tony in the stomach. The injured Tony then decides to press charges against him. What follows is a sensational legal case that is no longer purely between Tony and Yasser, but will reverberate nationwide and divide present-day Lebanon into two camps – one that sides with Yasser and supports the Palestinian cause, and the other siding with Tony, supporting Christian Lebanese.

You would think there’s a clear culprit at hand here, but nothing can be further from the truth. Despite being a courtroom drama, the film refuses to pander to the genre’s mainstream conventions – that is, the search for Truth with a capital T and the need to tout Justice with a capital J. Instead, you’ll soon realise that truth can easily be manipulated for hidden agendas and be twisted by prejudices. Everyone is desperately fighting to defend the truths that they hold dear, be it the hardships they’ve faced, or the trauma they’ve shouldered since the past.

And that’s especially true for Tony and Yasser. They are too stubborn for their own good, but believably so, when their families, livelihoods, and dignities are on the line. As Doueiri teasingly peels back layers of their secrets and backstories, you can’t help but sympathise with both of them by the end of the film. I, for one, sided with one character over another, and felt ashamed at my own biases when Doueiri reveals that things aren’t as clear-cut as they seem. As one of the lawyers in the film puts it succinctly, “No one has a monopoly on suffering.” 

The film is as much of an exhilarating courtroom drama as it is an engaging lesson on Middle Eastern geopolitics. Doueiri boldly puts sensitive religious and political issues under a microscope and dissects them with suspenseful and empathetic storytelling. You will walk away from the film not only knowing one or two more things about Middle Eastern history, such as Black September and Damour massacre, but with the insatiable desire to want to know more.

Of course, none of these is possible without the electrifying cast of characters, whose energies come together and leap off the screen as they duke it out in the courtroom. Basha especially deserved the Volpi Cup for Best Actor in Venice International Film Festival for his nuanced acting, and for capturing how multi-dimensional his character is.

With such a simple, yet exciting premise, I was thoroughly engrossed in the first half of the film, wanting to know more and more who will win the legal case, and how the characters will get out of the mess they’ve created. But Doueiri may have been too ambitious in escalating Tony’s and Yasser’s personal conflict into a nationwide problem. He offers an all-too-easy, naïvely hopeful solution to all of the chaos, which seems to me a bit insincere towards the adversities that his characters have gone through.  

Even so, that doesn’t compromise the film’s overall appeal. The optimism that it offers may even be a reprieve from the bleak, pessimistic atmosphere that permeate most drama films.

The Insult may be relentless in hitting us with hard truths, but it treats its characters with dignity, and invites us viewers to empathise with what they’ve been through and to forgive them despite their flaws and mistakes. In the end, the questions that Doueiri asks in The Insult will undoubtedly resonate with us – How can we bridge cultural differences and respect each other? Why is it easier to bear a grudge, and what does it take to forgive someone? Where can you call ‘home’ in a country rife with political upheaval?

The Insult is available for streaming on Projector Plus till 24 December.

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Give Shi Quan some books to read and films to watch, a cup of coffee, and a lazy cat, and he won't come out of his home for days.
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