A Brief Film Review & Commentary of THE INSULT
by John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director
THE INSULT was Lebanon's submission for "Best Foreign Language Film," and one of five nominees at the 2018 Oscars. The film was Mountain Shadow's selection for March, 2018. A brief historical background of modern-day Lebanon can be found at the end of this Review.*
If one considers film an art form (as I do), and one subscribes to the maxim about art imitating life, then a fine film like THE INSULT is an excellent example. It is also an “everyman’s” story.
Tony is a car mechanic with a small business. In our own country the pollsters would likely categorize him as uneducated, blue-collar; pre-wired with the typical resentments and prejudices of his lot in life. In his case, he’s an enthusiastic supporter of Lebanon’s Christian Party.
When the film opens, he’s just returned from a rousing political rally. In the rented apartment he hopes to buy one day, his beautiful young wife’s pregnant belly bulges with life. Shirene longs to start their new life chapter by returning to what was once his family home in Damour, instead of hot and noisy Beirut. But Tony won’t hear of it. There’s personal history that will only be revealed towards the end of the story. *(See below.)
For now, Tony is an ardent political supporter of those wishing to rid his country of the Palestinian refugee population. Consequently, when a seemingly minor incident occurs between Tony and Yasser, a Palestinian construction foreman, a molehill becomes an insurmountable mountain; when an insult requiring a genuine apology becomes an impossibility. All reasonable attempts to appease the offended party fail; since the underlying issue that quickly escalates to national prominence cannot even be resolved by judicial proceeding of the courts. What might be deemed fair or just falls far short of ego, pride, human dignity or self-identity.
But there’s something even far more fundamental in this human drama that one could transpose to any other time and place, where old wounds have been left to fester; including conflicts over immigrant worker’s, corporate interests, racial, ethnic and religious strife.
Underlying all this, it’s about deadly human pride that seeks to preserve and defend its place of honor by winning a dispute over what is presumably fair or just. Consumed by a fuming anger, the demand for an apology by one who deems themselves offended nearly ends up to be a self-defeating, self-destructive act. As Tony’s wife says to him at one point, “People who get humiliated end up hating themselves.”
In the end, the film ultimately presents two different possible alternatives; one for resolution, the other for reconciliation. Without giving anything away, this review simply leaves it up to viewer to consider both.
In the first instance, it is expressed by a simple gesture; a conciliatory u-turn, undertaken almost begrudgingly to offer assistance to one once despised.
In the second instance, there is a version of the ancient form of lex talionis. It is a retaliatory act of compensatory penance; meting out a form of justice where the punishment is a counter punch equal to the offense. As in Tony and Yasser’s case, it serves as a catalyst for an empahthic awakening of sorts; to feel what is a shared experience for both the offender and the one suffering the insult.
Only then can the once-insurmountable mountain lead the way back home; along with the chance to once and for all leave the past behind.
* A Brief Historical Background to Modern Day Lebanon
The Lebanese Civil War, lasting from 1975 to 1990, resulted in an estimated 120,000 fatalities, and left 76,000 people displaced within Lebanon itself; along with an exodus of almost one million people from Lebanon itself. Before the war, Lebanon was multi-sectarian, with Sunni Muslims and Christians being the majorities in the coastal cities, and Shia Muslims being mainly based in the south.
The link between politics and religion had been reinforced under a mandate of the French colonial powers from 1920 to 1943, and the parliamentary structure favored a leading position for the Christian Party. However, the country had a large Muslim population and many left-wing groups opposed the pro-western government. In addition, the establishment of the state of Israel and the displacement of a hundred thousand Palestinian refugees to Lebanon during the 1948 and 1967 exoduses contributed to shifting the demographic balance in favor of the Muslim population.
These are some of the background tensions that underlie the storyline in THE INSULT.