What a difference a few drops of water can make. In The Insult, a spurting drainpipe sparks an altercation across religious and cultural lines, a highly publicised court case, and a probing look at Lebanon's volatile political climate. There's more to Ziad Doueiri's Academy Award-nominated drama, including the heated exchange of words that gives the film its title. But at the movie's heart, a simple situation embodies the tensions in the writer-director's fraught, fractious homeland.
Just as right-wing Christian mechanic Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) is watering the plants on his Beirut balcony, Palestinian construction crew foreman Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha) walks underneath. Annoyed about getting wet and eager to do a good job around the neighbourhood, the latter knocks on the former's door and advises him to fix his drainage. When Tony refuses in an overt display of belligerence, Yasser takes matters into his own hands, repairing the pipe himself. Still irate, Tony then smashes Yasser's handiwork to pieces. In response and in obvious frustration, Yasser calls Tony a "fucking prick".
Despite the film's moniker, that's not the only insult hurled throughout the course of the narrative, or the only display of violence. Whether the central duo are tussling on the street, facing off in Tony's workshop or watching their respective lawyers (Camille Salameh and Diamand Bou Abboud) duke it out in court, The Insult hinges upon exchanges steeped in anger, as well as the unrest ignited by a society simmering with division. Indeed, from the moment that Doueiri opens the movie with a Christian political party protest, he doesn't shy away from the broader context that's so pivotal to his plot. And while the filmmaker doesn't avoid emotive touches either — Tony has a heavily pregnant wife (Rita Hayek) as well as a tragic background, while Yasser has been a refugee in the countryfor decades — every aspect of the storyline helps flesh out the movie's many complexities.
Doueiri's approach should feel familiar, and not just because he traversed comparable thematic terrain with terrorism drama The Attack back in 2012. Using a specific scenario as a stand-in for the Middle East's wider troubles is hardly a new cinematic tactic, as Iranian director Asghar Farhadi continually illustrates — and comparing The Insult to the likes of Farhardi's A Separation and About Elly is certainly a compliment. Like his fellow filmmaker, Doueriri possesses a way with words, both in slinging them between characters and in understanding their importance in trying circumstances. He similarly has an eye for nuanced performances, as El Basha demonstrates with a fine-tuned, lived-in portrayal that won him the Best Actor award at the 2017 Venice Film Festival. Furthermore, Doueriri knows how to unpack a moral quandary, sometimes bluntly but always effectively.
If there's another filmmaker that The Insult also owes a debt to, it's a seemingly unlikely one: Quentin Tarantino. Doueriri was the first assistant camera operator on Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, and clearly learned a few lessons in visual storytelling from all three movies. There's much greater restraint evident in his work with cinematographer Tommaso Fiorilli, of course, however movies so focused on searing dialogue rarely feel as fluid and energetic as this. A picture doesn't speak a thousand words here, given that so much conversation is flung about. But each frame lends weight, power and a crackling atmosphere to this riveting exploration of both everyday and historical conflicts.