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Rita Hayek, Adel Karam

“THE INSULT” My rating: B-

112 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Private words generate national repercussions in Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult,” the Lebanese film nominated for the foreign language Oscar.

When we first see Tony (Adel Karam) he looks like nothing so much as a caricature of a Rust Belt Trump voter…baseball cap, goatee, plaid shirt over a sleeveless wifebeater. He’s attending a rally of Lebanon’s far right Christian Party, listening to a speaker harangue the Palestinian refugees who have been an uncomfortable part of that country’s social fabric for decades.

Meanwhile Yasser (Kamel El Basha), one of those Palestinians, is foreman of a construction crew working across the street from the apartment Tony shares with his pregnant wife Shirine  (Rita Hayek).

A dispute erupts  over a gutter that sends dirty water draining off Tony’s balcony onto the heads of the workmen. Yasser fixes a pipe to eliminate the problem; the improvements are torn out by Tony, furious that a Palestinian has been messing with his home.

At the urging of his boss, Yasser shows up at Tony’s car repair shop to apologize. Instead he’s told: “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.”

An enraged Yasser punches Tony, breaking a couple of ribs.  Days later Tony aggravates the injury, piercing a lung and ending up in the hospital. Shirine goes into premature labor.

The mechanic decides to sue Yasser for damages.

Doueiri’s screenplay (written with Joelle Touma) is basically in two parts.  The film’s first half lays out the political and social tension creeping through all levels of Lebanese society.  Tony’s Christian Party members are rankled at a setup that allows Palestinians to live in refugee camps where the law can’t touch them. Meanwhile Yasser refers to himself and other refugees as “the niggers of the Arab world.”

In these early passages “The Insult” does a good job of describing the complex cultural and religious animosities that linger a quarter-century after the end of Lebanon’s devastating civil war. Particular effective are brief glimpses in the background of army tanks and the occasional stroller with an automatic weapon, reminders that civil unrest is a constant threat.

The film never makes the case of one man over the other; both Yasser and Tony have moments when they see, if only for a moment, the other guy’s point of view.  They regret the ugly turn things have taken and are tempted to call the whole thing off.

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