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The 2018 Oscar candidate from Lebanon "The Insult" begins with deceptive simplicity. One morning on a busy city construction site in Beirut, two strong-willed guys lock horns. Toni, a Lebanese Christian, and Yasser, a Palestinian refugee, are at odds over the installation of a drainage pipe for a new apartment. But as director Ziad Doueiri (also co-writer with Joelle Touma) slyly reveals, the dispute between the two began four decades earlier, in a tiny rural village.
By the time we meet them, the short-tempered Toni (a fiery Adel Kara) and the more stoic but equally stubborn Yasser (Kamel El Basha) are reviving a long-simmering civil war between their rival tribes, a conflict sparked in 1976 when Palestinian refugees were forced into camps that were then attacked by soldiers.
For Americans grown used to viewing the nearly 75-year-old Middle East crisis as a feud between Arabs and Jews, "The Insult" lays bare the sometimes equally testy relations between Arab Christians like Toni and the region's Muslim majority, like Yasser. While neither man is a typical representative of their tribe, each of these prickly guys demonstrates why the bad blood continues, periodically rising to deadly consequences.
While Toni argues that his seeming pigheaded response to having a Palestinian fix his apartment's plumbing comes from a desire to protect his young pregnant wife, she disagrees, seeing the flap as just another way to feed his engorged male ego.
While the emotional temperature of the drama remains high over its 116-minute running time, culminating in a neatly constructed and witty third-act courtroom showdown featuring dueling father/daughter attorneys, "The Insult" is mostly a battle of words, happily conveyed in easily read English subtitles. While Jewish characters never figure directly in this orgy of invective, Toni's original insult to Yasser does invoke the name of a feared and still controversial one-time Israeli general-turned-politician, whose actions against the Palestinians were like a Middle Eastern version of American Civil War-era General Sherman's march through Georgia and the torching of Atlanta. The emotional and verbal power of "The Insult" did whet my appetite for a full-scale all-Lebanese "Gone With the Wind."
"The Insult" contains anecdotal references to the days when Beirut was all-so-briefly thought of as "the Paris of the Middle East," a cosmopolitan center that was a sophisticated mecca for fashion, learning and the arts, in a region starved for reminders of the role it once played in human history. Meanwhile, you have a spirited drama (opening Friday at Landmark Theaters in San Francisco), and I have my candidate for Best Foreign Language Oscar.
Scene from director Ziad Doueiri's "The Insult." Photo: Cohen Media