There’s a microcosm of humanity’s faults and compassion within the conflict of The Insult. In Beirut, a Palestinian-refugee-construction worker notices a leaky gutter from a nearby apartment that is spraying his men. He offers to fix it for free, but the stubborn tenant—a Lebanese Christian—refuses the help. The construction worker decides to fix it anyway, only for the tenant to smash it to bits. Intensely harsh words are exchanged. Then the Palestinian punches the Lebanese Christian. Now the two men are in court for what blows up into one of the most significant trials in the country.
We get to know both of the men very well so that there isn’t one side we’re rooting for in this case. The Palestinian refugee is Yasser, an older man that has seen enough violence and hatred to be rendered weary. While he lashes out violently when the Christian pushes him too far, he wishes not to fight when the trial comes about, instead pleading guilty and admitting his wrongs. This is a man who has spent his whole life running from conflict, and his feet are plenty tired. On the other side, Tony, the Lebanese Christian, has a lot of stress. His wife is due to have a baby, and he finds himself enchanted with Christian sermons and rants that rile him up for the changes in his country. And when there are complications with the pregnancy, he’s all the more eager for justice.
At first, the trials seem simple enough to dismiss. The evidence was presented that Yasser was provoked and the case is dropped without declaring him guilty. But then top-notch lawyers become involved, and the trial becomes much bigger, whipped up into being about more than bitterness over preferences in pipes. The lawyers on both sides happen to be arguing family members, and they turn the trial from being “person versus person” to “country versus country.” The historical evidence brought into play—of both family and politics—turns the courtroom into a battleground where the audience begins to turn on each other with their beliefs. This naturally sets the already tense relationship between Palestinians and Lebanese into a countrywide dispute in which Tony and Yasser become merely pawns in a more-prominent game.
Such a scenario would seem to be more draining and about how hopeless and angry the world may appear, but it’s rather inspiring for how it ramps towards its conclusion. There comes a point where Tony’s rage can go no further when all the shouting and violence means nothing; it does amp up to a frightening level where Tony doesn’t feel safe in his own home and becomes paranoid of those trying to threaten his family and his block.
But there are also plenty of quiet moments where Tony and Yasser contemplate their next move with great hesitation. They both know this trial can’t continue and that they’ll have to put this behind them. A modicum of understanding comes in a beautifully silent scene where they depart negatively from a compromise meeting, only for Tony to help Yasser out with his car problems. It’s a scene that sticks with them, leading to both sides desiring the trial to end, but it may not be that easy with all the publicity built up around it.
While The Insult does get somewhat twisty at times to keep the drama going, it’s a stirring, contemplative, and emotional courtroom drama that always kept me fascinated. This is not easy material, and director Ziad Doueiri takes excellent care to make sure that the uplifting ending feels earned, and not like a hollow excuse for a smile after so much tension. He turns a rather simple dispute between two men into a film that is thoughtful, engaging, and incredibly insightful for how we become puppets of our politics when we can’t see past differences. As far as courtroom dramas go, The Insult is one of the most human stories worth telling.