It’s not often you see a film featuring a government disclaimer, but that’s what you get with The Insult (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Jan. 26). Lebanon’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, The Insult is preceded by a title card assuring viewers that what you’re about to see doesn’t express the opinions of the Lebanese government.
Considering Lebanon’s fraught post Sykes-Picot history, this is probably for the best — especially as the events in The Insult touch directly on the Civil War that ravaged the country during the 1970s and ‘80s. Though the insult itself may seem relatively insignificant to American viewers, it will resonate strongly with Lebanese.
Tony (Adel Karam) is a Maronite Christian with an understandably large chip on his shoulder. Forced as a child to flee his native village by Palestinian militiamen, Tony now lives and works in the capital city of Beirut, where he expresses his hatred for Muslims by incessantly playing ancient videos of Falangist leader Bachir Gemayal while working in his auto repair shop.
A run-in between Tony and Palestinian civil servant Yasser (Kamel El Basha), who insists that the illegal drainpipe extending from Tony’s apartment be replaced with an up-to-code one, results in an exchange of heated words. Things escalate when Yasser throws a punch that breaks two of Tony’s ribs.
Yasser’s unwillingness to offer an apology – he was, after all, just doing his job – sees the case blown out of all proportion. Tony begins legal proceedings, and the film follows his case’s Bleak House-like meanderings through the Lebanese judicial system. Whether or not justice is ultimately served is left open to the viewer’s interpretation.
Written and directed by Ziad Doueiri (West Beirut), The Insult confronts the unresolved issues bubbling beneath the surface in contemporary Lebanon, which still houses almost half a million Palestinian refugees. It’s a powerful feature anchored by outstanding work from Kamal and El Basha; the latter’s performance won him the Best Actor prize at last year’s Venice International Film Festival.
Also opening this week (at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco – no East Bay play dates are currently scheduled), Vazante (The Surge) may be less heralded by The Insult, but is just as good – and in one key respect, considerably better.
Set in Brazil’s remote Diamantina Mountains in 1821, the story revolves around a once-wealthy, now near-impoverished family of slave-holding white settlers whose diamond mine has run dry. To help make ends meet, the family has arranged a marriage of convenience between their daughter Naninha (Dinah Feldman) and moneyed cattle drover Antonio (Adriano Carvalho).
When Naninha perishes in childbirth, Antonio experiences the 19th-century equivalent of a breakdown and, in desperation, the family offers their youngest child as a replacement bride. Needless to say, things don’t go well.
Deliberately paced but by no means dull, Vazante’s best feature is Inti Briones’ breathtaking black-and-white cinematography. Absolutely stunning to look at, this is a piece of art best appreciated on the big screen, and well worth a trip across the bridge.