Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jan 13, 2018 5:17 pm 
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Hostilities a courtroom can't resolve

One clear understanding must surround The Insult, about a dispute between two men that transpires in Beirut in the present day: Lebanon is typically Middle Eastern and the Middle East is the home of conflict. Doueiri's lively, fast-moving depiction of this world puts him, in Godfrey Cheshire's view as expressed on, "in the company of such masters of politicized suspense as Costa-Gavras and Asghar Farhadi" - if somewhat uneasily so, since the new film isn't an unqualified success.

One man is bothered by another, but tries to help. He is rebuffed. He helps anyway. His improvement is destroyed. And he insults the destroyer. He comes to the man's place of work to apologize for his insult. But he is so angered that he assaults the other man, and lands him in the hospital. It goes to court. But that's only the beginning of a feud in which factions of the nation take sides.

The first person to be bothered is Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), currently a boss of construction workers making improvements in the neighborhood. Water pours down on him from a drain pipe from a balcony. He sees it's illegally constructed and offers to Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) to fix it - for free. We already know Tony, a pugnacious man, routinely wearing wife-beaters, showing his tattoos, with a beautiful pregnant wife (Shirine, Rita Hayek), who owns a garage, is a fan of the virulently anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim Christian leader of the Lebanese civil war, assassinated in 1982, Bachir Gemayel. A film of Gemayel was played at a right wing rally Tony just attended; later Gemayel is on TV at his garage. Does Tony know Yasser is a Palestinian Muslim from the refugee camps? Of course he does.

Tony refuses Yasser's offer to replace his illegal drain pipe, but Yasser does it anyway. When Tony sees this, he smashes the new pipe. Yasser responds by yelling an insult at Tony. In the English subtitles, it's rendered as "fucking prick," but it's acrtually the one word, عرص (ars, literally "pimp"). Injecting the overused English vulgarity, "fucking" so often into English subtitles nowadays is rather unfortunate. But of course it's hard to find equivalents for curses, especially Arabic ones. Arabic is a language rich in pungent insults; and their sting can be lasting.

Eventually Yasser realizes he must apologize to Tony for hurling such an insult when he was working at his job in construction in a public setting, and he goes to Tony's garage to do so (where the film of Gemayel is playing, further signaling Tony's allegiance with rabid anti-Palestianian Christians). He can't bring himself to apologise and instead, angered to the breaking point when Tony says “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped all of you out,” punches Tony in the stomach, cracking two of his ribs.

The first courtroom sequence is odd. Neither Tony nor Yasser has a lawyer. Tony insists he only wants an apology (that seems unlikely to go well!). This again Yasser refuses to provide. The judge says the whole matter is trivial and absurd and dismisses the case. In the aftermath of this disappointment, Tony engages a well-known pro-Christian lawyer to bring further charges against Yasser.

All this goes very fast. As the conflict becomes more elaborate, the action slows down, and eventually seems rather drawn-out, though Doueiri keeps things fast and lively for quite a while. The lawyer is a pugnacious, confident little man, Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh). Then a young woman lawyer takes the side of Yasser, which she agrees to do for free. But get this: she is Wajdi's daughter, Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Bou Abboud). It's understood that it's now a provocative fashion for Christians to defend Palestinians.

In court, members of the public representing the two factions are present, and the excitement, and hostilities always ready for reawakening, reawaken, Yasser and Tony becoming figureheads of the two aggrieved sides with their long history of hostilities - and massacres. The population of Lebanon is 40% Christian and in the factionalized little country, that's a majority. The Palestinian refugee camps, going back to the first expulsions from their land by Jews, are a long-time thorn in the side of the Lebanese Christians.

To say Zoueri's The Insult is "universal" would be like saying a gay love story could be anyone's love story. In fact The Insult is so embedded in the hostilities of Christians and Palestinians in Lebanon and the legacy of anger from the 1975-1990 civil war that it's hard to see its tale of the feud between two men for the shock waves of national hostility. I notice that one reviewer (for Roger got the affiliations of Doueri and his girlfriend and collaborator Joelle Touma reversed (she's the Christian; he's the- secular - Muslim; see interview).

One can understand this. The Insult is more complicated than the already gnarly material of the director's 2013 The Attack, about a Palestinian surgeon celebrated in Israel whose honor and security collapse when it's suspected that his wife is a suicide bomber.* And this polemically ambitious film was cause of a crowning irony recently when the new film, The Insult, was a prizewinner at Venice. Doueiri, expecting to be greeted as a hero in Lebanon, was treated like an enemy of the state on his return for shooting much of the film in Israel, where Lebanese citizens are forbidden to go, and was detained, then brought before a military tribunal.

I am sympathetic with Lane of The New Yorker: both for preferring Doueiri's spirited and enjoyable first film, West Beirut, about teenagers growing up in Beirut during the civil war; and for feeling this new film is "oddly programmatic" and might leave viewers "more schooled than stirred." Nonetheless in showing how a private squabble, in stirring the pot of old conflicts, could become an Affair of State (the French subtitle of this film), Doueiri has shown admirable ambition and courage.

Doueiri shows here even more than in The Attack that he is a visual artist. In earlier days after studying film in Southern California he was the cameraman for four of Quentin Tarantino's films, including Pulp Fiction. Now his swift, lithe dp Tommaso Fiorilli makes skillful and pleasing use of images, including a film collage of the massacre at Damour, a Christian Lebanese town where 500 were massacred and 22,000 made homeless early in the civil war. He also produces lively images of young, provocative Palestinians who disrupt the trial and riot in the streets, with fire. But the more impressive these visuals get the more they risk departing from the original human story. Perhaps better is a moment of truce when Tony starts Yasser's stalled car. Doueiri is embroidering a story that as the trial scenes continue, no longer has anywhere to go. We get the point: reconciliation must begin at home, in the heart.

The Insult/L'Insulte, Arabic title قضية رقم ٢٣ (Case No. 23) ,112 mins., debuted at Vence 31 AUg. 2017 where Kamel El Basha won the Best Actor award; a raft of Lebanese film awards, and several other festival nominations and prizes. Seven other international festivals including Telluride, Toronto and Vancouver. US release begins 12 Jan. 2018; rolling out 26 Jan.
*(Previously, besides The Attack, I also reviewed Doueiri's 2004 Lila Says.)


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