The Insult [L’insulte]

(Lebanon / Belgium / Cyprus / France / USA 2017)

“We live in the Middle East. The word ‘offense’ was born here.”

— Wajdi Wehbe

The plot of The Insult [L’insulte] [قضيةرقم٢٣‎] recalls the old saying, “a stitch in time saves nine.” Perhaps someone should have told Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a hothead Beirut mechanic in his forties (born about three weeks after me), and Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), the sixtyish foreman of a construction crew.

While tending to plants on his balcony one afternoon, Tony accidentally spills water on the guys in the crew working below him on the street. Yasser spots the problem: a sawed-off pipe is coming out of the balcony. He offers to fix it, but Tony declines. Rudely. Yasser directs the guys to fix it anyway. Just as they finish, Tony sees the new pipe — and he busts it up into pieces. Watching it happen, Yasser calls Tony a “fucking prick.”

This is where it all starts to snowball. Tony is a Lebanese Christian, a devotee of Bachir Gemayel. Yasser is a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon. Tony demands an apology. Yasser refuses. His boss (Talal El Jurdi), overwrought by the combustibility of the situation, persuades him to do so after he learns what happened.

When the two men approach Tony at his garage, he makes a vicious ethnic remark to Yasser, who punches him in the gut and cracks two ribs. Tony sues Yasser — involving the police in a small criminal investigation doesn’t quench his thirst for “justice,” which to Tony is more about putting Yasser in his place. Initially, both men represent themselves before a lower court. The judge (Carlos Chahine) dismisses the case in a huff, annoyed that neither man can articulate his position.

Infamous attorney Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), who fancies himself a defender of the Christian perspective, takes a political interest in Tony’s case. He convinces Tony to appeal the dismissal. Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), an attorney from legal aid, offers to represent Yasser for her own political reasons.

Soon, the media gets wind of the case. Before the watchful eyes of reporters, the two attorneys, who have a relationship, drag personal and political wounds into the light of the courtroom. The trial ignites tensions and threatens to spark national unrest. Even the President is concerned.

The Insult is not perfect — I could’ve done with less time in the courtroom and none of Éric Neveux’s flimsy techno soundtrack. Still, director Ziad Doueiri, who wrote the screenplay with Joelle Touma, hits the right notes here, diving right into the religious-cultural-political differences that do more than divide — they affront. The conflict is specific to Lebanon, but the outrage — consuming and exhausting everyone it its path — is the same that you see all over today, from Europe to South America to the United States.

With Rita Hayek, Christine Choueiri, Julia Kassar, Rifaat Torbey, Georges Daoud, Christina Farah, Elie Njeim

Production: Ezekiel Films, Tessalit Productions, Rouge International, Scope Pictures, Douri Films, Cohen Media Group, Canal+, Ciné+, L’Aide aux Cinémas du Monde, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Ministère des Affaires étrangères et du Développement International

Distribution: Cinéart (Netherlands), Diaphana Films (France), Cohen Media Group (USA), Distribution Company (Argentina), Filmarti (Turkey)

112 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B

Fire at Sea [Fuocoammare]

(Italy 2016)

“It is the duty of every human, if you’re human, to help these people.”

—Dr. Pietro Bartolo

Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea is inconsistent. On the plus side, it’s a beautifully shot film that recalls Italian neorealism with its ordinary characters, setting, and action. He follows a few different narratives, including a doctor, Pietro Bartolo; a pubescent boy, Samuele Pucillo; an old lady; and throngs of refugees mostly from Africa and the Middle East who arrive by boat to the sleepy Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, where these fishing townsfolk live. Using a kind of day-in-the-life approach, Rosi contrasts the lives of those who have all one way or another ended up on this island. Dr. Bartolo’s job is to examine the refugees as they arrive, and his commentary on what he’s seen is sad. Pucillo is a fisherman’s kid who’s nursing a lazy eye. The old lady (who’s name I didn’t catch and I’m not going to find it now) listens to the radio in her kitchen and requests songs for her son, who’s away at sea. I think. The refugees are something else altogether, and a few get camera time to tell their stories. There’s a great scene where a bunch of them sing a haunting African chant/rap about their persecutors. There’s another where a group of men divides up to play soccer, and we get insight into their allegiances.

On the negative side, Fire at Sea meanders. A lot. Rosi doesn’t exactly connect the refugee crisis to the islanders, so Pucillo and the old lady seem superfluous; their stories actually interfere with what I was far more interested in: the refugees. It’s a pretty and non-judgmental film, but it doesn’t take a stand. I sense a point about loss in here somewhere, but it doesn’t quite get there. I was bored during most of it, I’m sorry to say.

114 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) C

Chicago International Film Festival

The Bride [La novia]

(Spain 2015)

I love a Latin melodrama, and The Bride definitely delivers. Adapted from Federico García Lorca’s 1933 tragedy Blood Wedding, it has all the elements of a telenovela: hopelessly beautiful characters with secrets and family drama, caught in a torrid love triangle that comes to a catastrophic head at a wedding.

The Bride (Imma Cuesta) has been involved with both the Groom (Asier Etxeandia) and Leonardo Felix (Álex García)—the sole character with a name—since the three were kids. She has a past with hunky Leonardo, who left her to marry her cousin (Leticia Dolera). By circumstances not entirely clear in the film, the Bride ended up with the Groom and is marrying him for less than noble reasons. Woefully, the Bride and Leonardo are still into each other. An ever-present apparition (María Alfonsa Rosso) warns the Bride early on not to marry the Groom if she doesn’t love him. Leonardo and his wife (and their baby) attend the wedding, and shit unravels.

Director Paula Ortiz makes some interesting choices. She’s coy about time and place, casually throwing together cars and clothes from various decades of the first half of the Twentieth Century while nothing appears to be powered by electricity. Leonardo gets around almost entirely on horse. The dusty vacant desert setting evokes an old Western film, though it could just as easily be the Middle East or Mars as Turkey (where The Bride actually was filmed). The time sequence is out of order, jumping back and forth between past and present. The whole thing moves like a dance, which I took to be a kind of nod to García Lorca’s poetry.

Luisa Gavasa is downright amazing as the Groom’s grim, venomous mother—she has the audacity to wear black to the wedding, if that says anything. Cuesta and García make a hot couple, and they have an extended sex scene worthy of a porn, complete with a flash or two of dick. Miguel Ángel Amoedo’s dreamy, sun-bleached cinematography is so gorgeous, it literally elevates the story. Shigeru Umebayashi’s score is equally gorgeous. This is a very sensual film.

The Bride has its problems, though. The scenes of the Bride’s hallucinations are pretty—lots of floating glass, ice-like daggers, and a big white moon—but they’re distractingly cheesy. The opening scene, which is actually the end of the story, comes off as superfluous; in fact, the time-jumping mechanism doesn’t add a thing. Worse, Ortiz seems to sacrifice depth for decoration. I haven’t seen or read Blood Wedding, but I’m familiar with García Lorca’s work. The Bride is dramatic but superficial—the symbolism is there, but it only hints at the weighty themes García Lorca explored. The focus is clearly on the story—not what’s behind it. So much more could have been said here: I see glimmers of statements on gender, class, mental illness, self-will. Ni modo.

96 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-