Ziad Doueiri’sThe Insult“, one of 9 films shortlisted for the Foreign Language Oscar, begins with a seemingly trivial altercation. A man named Yasser (Kamel El Basha) is tasked with fixing building code violations in a Lebanese community. One day at work, he is doused by a overhead drainpipe, which is illegally protruding from the home of a man named Tony (Adel Karam). Yasser informs Tony of the violation and asks him to fix the problem, but Tony refuses. Feeling an obligation to do his job, Yasser decides to fix the pipe without permission, which offends Tony and aggravates him to destroy the new installation. Now both men feel insulted, exchanging inflammatory words. All of this could be solved with an apology – which is what Tony requests – but of course, it’s not that simple.

Indeed, their fight rapidly escalates to physical retaliation and eventually, a courtroom trial which takes on national importance. Yasser is a Palestine refugee, while Tony is a Lebanese Christian. As such, their dispute becomes embroiled in a larger debate about tensions between both groups within the society. As their trail rages on with high profile lawyers attached, prejudices are revealed which threaten to tarnish the reputations of both men and their communities. But can they come to a peaceful resolution before their country erupts into civil unrest?

Like the rapt public intently following the courtroom proceedings, “The Insult” grips the audience from start to finish. Much of the credit goes to Ziad Doueiri and Joelle Touma’s smart screenplay which displays a keen understanding of its setting. As both sides present their case, the sociopolitical climate of the Middle East plays out to illuminating and riveting effect. The writing truly revels in the inherent drama the law provides to these arguments. Indeed, fans of courtroom dramas and the legal process will surely get a kick out of the film’s deconstruction of the concepts of “human nature,” “extreme distress” and “hate crime.”

And what would a courtroom drama be without impassioned performances? Thankfully, “The Insult” delivers this in spades, offering up a slew of compellingly acted characters ranging from the aggrieved parties and their counsel to the supporting characters indirectly involved in the dispute. Indeed, Rita Hayek is a standout as Tony’s frustrated wife, acting as a relatable voice of reason against this battle of wills. And while Kamel El Basha was the Best Actor awardee at the film’s Venice premiere, it is Adel Karam who emerges as the MVP among the cast. He brings a complexity to this deceptively hot-headed man.

Admittedly, certain plot developments require some suspension of disbelief. But throughout, “The Insult” maintains an emotional sincerity that is ultimately affecting. Notably, both men are fundamentally honest about themselves and their actions, a fascinating rarity in both courtroom films and real life. Even rarer is the film’s objection to the saying that “actions speak louder than words.” When all is said and done in “The Insult”, that message resonates as a powerful reminder of the damaging effects of bigotry, prejudice and even more universally, fragile masculinity.

“The Insult” opens in select theaters January 12.

GRADE: (★★★½)

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