The Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars is typically one of the more overlooked segments of the awards, and historically many of the movies nominated might never get a screening outside of major markets like New York and Los Angeles. That’s truly a shame, because these films often represent some of the most insightful and thought-provoking work being produced, and would boast universal themes only superseded by most American moviegoers’ aversion to subtitles. A perfect case in point is Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult, a film that delves deeply into the cultural divides that have fractured the Middle East but could just as easily be transposed onto the current societal landscape of the good ol’ US of A.
Set in Beirut, The Insult follows what begins as a minor incident between a Lebanese Christian and a Muslim Palestinian immigrant and escalates to the brink of civil war, with decades of resentment and bigotry bubbling to the surface of a nation struggling to maintain a tenuous cultural detente. As tensions mount, the two men become proxies in a complex conflict that would be ludicrous were it not so deadly serious, and as riots break out over the courtroom battle between them, the audience is left to wonder whether Doueiri is presenting a pitch-black comedy or an unremittingly bleak melodrama.
Doueiri, Quentin Tarantino’s camera operator for Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, manages his film with style and grace, but occasionally missteps when it comes to tonality. It helps matters greatly that his leads deliver exceptionally strong performances, with Adel Karam imparting a venomous intolerance to his turn as the distinctly un-Christlike Christian and Kamel El Basha personifying stoic nobility as the beleaguered Palestinian — a role that justifiably garnered El Basha the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival. If Doueiri’s characterizations are a bit pat, his stars’ performances are anything but.
Co-written by Doueiri, a Christian, and his now-ex-wife Joelle Touma, a Muslim, The Insult is actually about a series of insults ranging from the obvious to the insidiously subtle. It’s a film that is not only rooted in interpersonal conflict, but one that embodies conflict itself — between ethnic groups, generations, geopolitical and religious worldviews — practically every possible form of schismatic opposition is touched on to some extent. The questions raised defy easy answers, and Doueiri stops short of any such pontification. But what he does offer is a very simple and universal point — that such conflicts are only possible insofar as people refuse to see the commonality of our shared plight, and that nothing can be accomplished until the dogmatic adhesion to Otherness is completely disavowed. It’s a pretty heady message for a film that starts out with a dispute over plumbing codes, but one that deserves as broad an audience as possible. Arabic with English subtitles. Rated R for language and some violent images.
Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse.