‘The Insult’ review: Lebanon’s Ziad Doueiri presents a compelling courtroom drama that’s steeped in metaphor

The film explores the divisions that have caused much bloodshed through the Middle East.

‘The Insult’

Directed by Ziad Doueiri

Starring Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Rita Hayek

Rated R

Playing at Lincoln Plaza Cinema

The complex history of Lebanon is distilled into a single sensational court battle in “The Insult,” a movie from the country’s Ziad Doueiri that’s steeped in metaphor.

It’s a fascinating sociological document disguised as narrative cinema, wherein the details of the plot and courtroom dramatics matter far less than the overall endeavor to grapple with the nation’s and region’s legacy of brutal internecine conflict.

In the French/Arabic film, what begins as a seemingly minor conflict on the streets of Beirut between a Palestinian refugee named Yasser (Kamel El Basha) working as a construction foreman and Lebanese Christian mechanic Tony (Adel Karam) transforms into a court fight and a media sensation that transfixes the country.

The picture tells the story of what amounts to a national reckoning, a moment of self-reflection writ large. The trial evokes the essence of the deep-rooted divisions along racial and ethnic lines that have spurred so much bloodshed in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East, asking tough questions about the root causes and seeking to begin a conversation about the potential for a better way.

This is a compelling endeavor and a fundamentally necessary one; it’s enacted with grace and empathy and the stars do an exceptional job of balancing their characters’ ingrained notions of their identities with the confusion and doubt that progressively envelop them.

The larger story sustains the movie through moments that feel manufactured and implausible, especially as the legal case develops and the characters interact in ways that seem more driven by the messaging than the fundamental realities of their situation.

There’s an understanding of the shared painful pasts that color and shape the present and a steadfast insistence on promoting the potential for greater human understanding at a time and a place that badly needs it.

Robert Levin