“The Insult” starts out as an allegory about Middle East wrongs and resentments that’s so sharp you could cut your fingers on it. Then it expands beyond the allegorical into actuality, all while walking a razor’s edge of dramatic tension and clear-eyed humanism. The film’s from Lebanon and is nominated for this year’s foreign language Oscar; while it has competition (“A Fantastic Woman,” from Chile; “The Square,” from Sweden; “Loveless,” from Russia), it’s a more than worthy contender.
The plot concerns a petty feud that keeps getting bigger, watered by macho pride and memories of trauma. Tony (the charismatic Adel Karam) is a hotheaded Beirut auto mechanic, protective toward his pregnant wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek, serenely beautiful), devoted to his country’s right-wing Christian politics, and touchy about everything else. Yasser (Kamel El Basha) is an aging Palestinian refugee, illegally working as foreman on a neighborhood renovation project.
Yasser gets splashed by Tony’s non-code balcony drainage pipe; Tony takes a hammer to Yasser’s attempt to fix said pipe; tit for tat, each man unwilling to bend or apologize, until Tony blurts out a game-changer: “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.”
Suddenly “The Insult” sees subtext assume center stage. What started as a local beef becomes a national and regional court case that inflames all sides and threatens to lead to further violence. Director-co-writer Ziad Doueiri does an excellent job at balancing the micro and macro aspects of the drama, and he constantly keeps our sympathies shifting foot. If Tony is a blowhard and a racist, there are hints that he’s badly damaged goods; while Yasser maintains a veneer of affronted dignity, his hands may not have always been so clean. All it would take is one apology from either man, but when the insults go back decades and generations, no one wants to be the first to bend.
Doueiri has done time in Hollywood — he served as Quentin Tarantino’s first assistant cameraman from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Jackie Brown,” before returning to Lebanon to direct his own movies — and he understands that while all politics are local, character is universal. “The Insult” becomes juicily entertaining in the trial scenes, in which Tony is represented by one Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), a dapper, grandstanding little egotist with Johnnie Cochran tendencies and a xenophobic hatred of Palestinians. Yasser’s lawyer, meanwhile, is Wajdi’s estranged daughter, Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), simultaneously trying to save her client and get back at Dad.
“The Insult” is also very much about the idiocies of men as they attach themselves to causes, ethnicities, religious beliefs, and grudges — everything but other people. Accordingly, while both Tony and Yasser become increasingly sympathetic as we learn more about their backgrounds, and as the filmmakers weave their way toward a détente that’s well-earned and believable, it’s the women who are this movie’s frayed conscience.
The lady lawyer, the trial judge (Julia Kassar), Yasser’s fearful wife (Christine Choueiri), and Tony’s Shirine, a buckling pillar of strength — all seem to be wondering how and if they can save these men, this country, and the human race from themselves. “The Insult” is optimistic enough to leave the door open to hope. But it’s also realistic enough to only leave it ajar.
Directed by Ziad Doueiri. Written by Doueiri and Joelle Touma. Starring Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Rita Hayek, Camille Salameh, Diamand Bou Abboud. At Kendall Square. 112 minutes. R (language, some violent images). In Arabic, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.