'The Insult' Review: Oscar-Nominated Lebanese Legal Drama Crackles With Intensity

Best Foreign-Film nominee boils down centuries of Middle Eastern conflict into one reckless statement – and lets the sparks fly

'The Insult' boils down Middle Eastern conflicts into one reckless statement – Peter Travers on why you check out this Oscar-nominated legal drama.

Its Oscar nomination this week as Best Foreign-Language Film isn't the only thing that makes The Insult a must-see – Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri's legal thriller fairly crackles with timely provocations. And don't be put off if the film's structure initially seems schematic to a fault. This is a director who's more than adept at filling in the spaces between feuding characters with insinuating nuance. 

The conflict starts when Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a Christian garage owner with a pregnant wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek), gets all up in the face of Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian Muslim refugee running a construction crew on the streets of Beirut. It seems an improperly installed gutter pipe on Tony's balcony has splashed onto Yasser, who demands that the man fix it pronto.

When the repair does not take place, Yasser does the job himself. This infuriates Tony, who smashes the pipe and, as a fan of the anti-Palestinian, assassinated Christian leader Bachir Gemayel hurls an insult: "I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out." Suddenly, a half century's worth of Christian vs. Muslim animosity and civil wars gets boiled down to one 

And so the plot boils over. An infuriated Yasser punches the offender, breaking two of his ribs. Lawyers are called in: the established Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh) for Tony; the young, inexperienced Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud) for Yasser. The male and female attorneys have their own history of conflict. The media seizes on the case with an eye for sensationalism. Emotions are inflamed. There are riots in the streets. What ensues is an explosive courtroom battle, expertly staged by Doueiri (The Attack), a former cameraman for Quentin Tarantino (on Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown). It's also a personal film, given that the director is a Lebanese Muslim who wrote the screenplay with his now ex-wife Joelle Touma, a Lebanese Christian.

With a petty fight over a gutter pipe now carrying metaphorical weight for an age-old stand-off in the Middle East, The Insult tackles some large issues that it can't always get a handle on. Is a fair trial even possible when both sides carry the burden of historical injustices? Still, the excitement is palpable, and Karam and El Basha (he justifiably won the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival) give the kind of performances that keep you riveted. Even at its most blunt and obvious, this is a movie that stumps for empathy. Who can argue with that?