Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult, Lebanon’s Best Foreign Film Oscar candidate, is a heartfelt and strident message movie, and how successfully and powerfully that message gets across depends on your knowledge of the politics of the Middle East and how strident you like your message movies.
If your preference is for the adroitly and poignantly delivered courtroom speech, then you’re in the right place. If your preference, however, is for something more subtle, more shown than told, then you’re also in the right place, occasionally. The problem of the film is that the former too often overpowers the latter. That being said, it’s still a movie worth seeing and thinking about.
Doueiri, who has worked in Hollywood with Quentin Tarantino, has his mentor’s love of pointed and combative dialogue, and in The Insult, he pursues the subject of the power of words; particularly, the power of words to ignite and damage. The incendiary politics of Lebanon…the parties involved here are Lebanese Christians, Palestinian refugees, and, always unseen but mentioned, the Israelis are fueled by the heated political rhetoric of both the leaders (specifically, Bachir Gemayel, the leader of a powerful Christian militia in the Lebanese civil war) and their followers. Positions are taken and backing down becomes unthinkable. Demonizing becomes the de rigueur response. Words lead to violence. And the story ends up in court, a hopefully fair and just arena for truth to be discerned.
I don’t know a great deal about Lebanese political histor. I learned much from this film, I will say, though it wasn’t always easy to keep the players straigh. So, like many American viewers, I would guess, I was relating to the events and the characters more on individual and archetypal levels. Seen that way, this film has much to say about both the devils and better angels of our nature. Resentment that leads to hate, the difficulty and power of forgiveness, love of family vs love of ethnicity, political beliefs that masquerade for personal demons, Doueiri aims high and to the heart. And most of the time, he hits his mark, though ironically more in the characters’ actions than their words.
Also, like most Americans, I was watching the film for its parallels to the current American political climate. You could replace the Christians and the Palestinians with any number of American social and political factions. Seen in that light, The Insult, is a powerful mirror of this dark night of our divided nation, as well as a film of hope.
The Insult is one of those films that takes awhile to percolate, revealing more wisdom than its eagerness to entertain and move us initially allows room for. The morning after viewing it, you wonder how you would have acted in like circumstances, and just how alike and different you are from these characters, individuals who seem additionally fresh and revealing to us because they are not played by the usual cast of American and British actors.