What it's about: Yasser Abdallah Salameh is a Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon and working as a construction foreman. On a job to bring an apartment complex up to code, Yasser gets into a disagreement with Tony Hanna, a tenant who takes offense to the crew fixing an illegal drain pipe. They exchange words and Tony demands an apology to Yasser's boss. A racially-charged insult erupts into violence and a court trial that blows the small and personal feud into an examination on the meaning of words, racism, and the history of Lebanon.
Before you read anything else I have to say, check out C.J.'s review of The Insult from earlier this year.
The Insult was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar earlier this year, which isn't all that surprising. This is definitely the kind of foreign film the Academy likes to celebrate. It explores themes of morality and social justice but isn't too complicated or challenging. The Insult is well meaning and well made and very middle-brow.
Don't often see movies that begin with a disclaimer that the filmmakers' views don't represent the views of the national government.
As race relations have crescendoed in our current political environment, it is interesting to see a foreign examination of what can seem like an American problem. As an outsider, I was unaware of the complicated racial make-up in Lebanon, a country I would have assumed was fairly homogeneous in terms of race and belief structures. The Insult does a good job [if maybe a little clumsily] of establishing the national conflict between the Lebanese and Palestinian refugees. The problems the film explores are universal.
The Insult swings big into the melodramatic and slippery slope arguments, which eventually limited my enjoyment of the film's central conflict. As the film fully becomes a court drama, the increased grandstanding beings to explicitly state its themes. It leads to a literal slideshow history lesson to resolve its lesson on how hate leads to hate.
The Insult is at its best when it remains the small, personal conflict between two proud men. While the shift to the courtroom makes for a bigger, more historically resonant drama, the narrative drawbacks are too much. Yasser and Tony's reconciliation is the best scene in the film because it is able to be subtle and personal.
Characters seem more like symbols than actual people. Tony's wife is pregnant unfortunately only to show that he isn't just a racist prick and has some positive, loving qualities, too.
By the end of The Insult, I'm not exactly sure where the film's politics stand. Tony's bigshot lawyer, a right-wing mouthpiece, is often shown as ridiculous and wrong-headed but he is redeemed by the end of the film by uncovering a stirring piece of history that crystallizes the case.
The most important line of his closing argument, "No one has a monopoly on suffering," is difficult to parse. The final moments of the film seem to suggest this is a unifying sentiment -- that we must all realize we all suffer from hardships. It is delivered, though, as a defense that persecuted people may be complaining too much, that no one's hands are clean. It is a well-meaning message that uncomfortably comes off as victim blaming.