Unfolding in the streets, apartments and courthouses of Beirut, "The Insult," an engrossingly blunt instrument of a movie that has been nominated for the Academy Award for foreign-language film, tells an angry story for angry times.
Writer/director Ziad Doueiri's protagonists are caught up in a protracted legal battle that triggers a media firestorm that may well remind you of other ethnic and religious conflicts closer to home.
The confrontation begins with a problematic drainpipe on an apartment balcony. Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), tasked with building repairs in the neighborhood, attempts to fix the pipe. But the resident, Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), takes one look at him and slams the door in his face, setting in motion a fierce war of words, ethnicities and bristling male egos.
Tony is a gruff, 46-year-old Lebanese mechanic with a wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek), and a baby on the way. He has also been an active member of his country's Christian political party.
The somewhat older Yasser is a Palestinian Muslim who lives with his wife (Christine Choueiri) in a nearby refugee camp.
Viewers not up to speed on inter-Arab tensions in the region will get a crash course from the vicious anti-Palestinian speeches constantly streaming from a radio in Tony's garage, most of them from the late Lebanese Christian leader Bachir Gemayel, who was assassinated in 1982 before he could take office as the country's president.
In a moment of anger — which is to say a moment like many others — Tony blasts Yasser with his own exceedingly hateful version of Gemayal's rhetoric. Yasser responds — justifiably, some audience members surely will conclude — by punching Tony, fracturing a few ribs.
Whether the mechanic's verbal assault carries the same moral weight as the foreman's physical one is among the questions raised in court by their respective attorneys, Wajdi (a gleefully showboating Camille Salameh) and Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), who add a spirited level of argument to the already bickersome proceedings.
Whatever Doueiri may think of the destructive power of words, he is nothing if not enamored of them. The characters' endless back-and-forth is meant to give the film both dramatic tension and political evenhandedness, and its near-constant exposition (plus some late-breaking flashbacks) is useful in steering the viewer through a crowded minefield of race, politics and history.
But the unintended effect of all this caustic debate is that the movie at times seems to buckle under the weight of its own verbiage.
In the role of Tony, Karam, a charismatic presence, is given little room for nuance, and his performance lends the movie the feel of a long, unmodulated shouting match.
In portraying Yasser, El Basha sympathetically suggests a man typically accustomed to suffering in silence.
As the tensions escalate, the movie itself seems to shift genres, lurching from a cynical satire of the justice system and the ensuing media circus to a tense panorama of civil unrest.
"The Insult" means to leave us pondering the possibility of reconciliation and forgiveness, of a society in which men (and women, or what little we see of them) do a better job of acknowledging each other's humanity.
It's a noble and truthful sentiment, to be sure, though it's hard to shake the feeling that a more interesting movie might have treated it as not an end but a beginning.
★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for profanity and some violence.
Theaters: Lagoon, Willow Creek