Words have unintended consequences in Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult, which tackles one conflict in the Middle East with a well-meaning tin ear. Taking place in Beirut, the initial conflict starts when construction worker Yasser (Kamel El Basha) comes to fix a building code violation at an apartment belonging to mechanic Tony (Adel Karam). Yasser tries to fix the violation, only for Tony to freak out on him, leading Yasser to tell him off. But Yasser’s insult is just a warm-up, as when his boss forces him to apologize for his behaviour, the Christian Tony tells the Palestinian Yasser that he wishes Ariel Sharon wiped all of them out.
Yasser retaliates by punching Tony in the stomach, breaking two ribs and setting off a chain of events that leads them to court. Tony receives the help of a high-profile Christian attorney (Camille Salame, perfectly slimy) while Yasser gets assistance from a young lawyer (Diamond Abou Abboud) wanting to fight for the persecuted Palestinians. By this point, The Insult turns into a full-blown courtroom drama, and there’s a fun theatricality to the proceedings. Doueiri and director of photography Tommaso Fiorilli use plenty of steadicam shots swirling around characters to heighten the drama, and at one point a plot twist gets revealed in a way that would make Ryan Murphy proud. Before it ends up getting to what it really wants to say, Doueiri makes his film entertaining in the way it indulges the genre’s tricks of the trade.
As the case evolves into a media sensation -- even in the film’s universe, people can’t resist the symbolism of the central conflict -- Doueiri fumbles his landing. The trial turns into an examination of what could have led Tony and Yasser to act out on each other, which delves into their respectively tragic pasts. This is yet another example of the “context is everything” argument, but it’s flimsy when applied to this story. No matter what either character has gone through, it doesn’t justify Tony wishing for an entire nationality of people to be wiped out. The problem here is that Doueiri wants to generate sympathy for Tony, but all he can muster is a variation on “both sides do it.” That might have worked if the incident itself had some ambiguity to justify it, but it’s pretty clear-cut in terms of who wronged who.
Surprisingly, The Insult’s themes of cultural division and the difficult road to progress mirror another title from 2017: Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (both films also have the pleasure of being Oscar nominees). But at least McDonagh’s film had a sense of humour, more interesting performances, and the ability to get messy in its exploration of messy issues. The Insult holds back too much, starting out as high-minded camp before settling into an attempt to say something meaningful. It might have been better if it sat back and let the dramatic fireworks do the talking instead.