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film review

The Insult was nominated for best foreign-language film at the 90th Academy Awards – Lebanon’s first-ever nod.

To get to the Academy Awards, some filmmakers simply have to show up on set and act like they know what they're doing. Many have to play nice on the awards circuit after filming. A few have to spin tales of heartache over years, if not decades, of suffering for their art to build up a proper Oscars narrative. For Ziad Doueiri, director of the tense new drama The Insult, all he had to do was go to jail. Well, sort of.

This past September, Doueiri was arrested in his native Lebanon just after The Insult premiered at the Venice Film Festival to warm reviews. The charge didn't technically have anything to do with the new film, but rather with Doueiri having shot parts of his previous movie, 2012's The Attack, in Israel. That didn't go over well with Lebanese authorities. They eventually released him with no charges, albeit lending the director and his filmography some incendiary headlines in the process.

All of which leads back to The Insult, which on Tuesday was nominated for best foreign-language film at the 90th Academy Awards – Lebanon's first-ever nod. The film faces stiff competition in the category, notably Ruben Ostlund's art-world satire The Square and Andrey Zvyagintsev's Putin-baiting drama Loveless, but somehow it feels safe to say The Insult will come out on top. Not only because of Doueiri's stature in the world press and his apparently tense relationship with Beirut, but because his film is a propulsive and unapologetically Hollywood-esque production.

The film's roots may lie deep in Lebanese politics – centring around a fracas between a Lebanese Christian auto mechanic named Tony (Adel Karam) and the Palestinian refugee Yasser (Kamel El Basha) who enters his life – but its execution is pure melodrama flash and high courtroom drama, familiar enough to the Academy's Western tastes to draw a knowing nod or three. This isn't meant to be – sorry – an insult, just an observation that in crafting his very geographically specific tale, Doueiri seems to have been inspired by the best-known, high-concept plot mechanics of Western cinema.

The story starts off small enough, when Yasser fixes a code violation on Tony's apartment balcony, a seemingly harmless move that sends the working-class father-to-be into a rage. From there, things escalate quickly – almost too much so – with Tony taking Yasser to court, various family members spiralling in and out of crises, twists aplenty and an entire nation transfixed on the outcome. There's even a pair of duelling father-daughter lawyers, a trick Class Action, starring Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, employed back in 1991, to slightly more nuanced effect. The Verdict, Philadelphia, Judgment at Nuremberg – all the classic English-language courtroom dramas are flicked at with reverence.

It all adds up to a familiar production, though certainly not a wasted one. Along with his ex-wife Joelle Touma, Doueiri has written a smooth legal thriller laced with all sorts of political undercurrents. His directing style is clean and visually compelling – he's been making films in the Middle East since 1998, but worked as a camera assistant under Quentin Tarantino for years beforehand – and he is an expert at drawing out colourful, fully invested performances from his leads. Even the film's turns into melodrama feel almost organic.

By the time The Insult's verdict seems near, you may find yourself as wrapped up in the inherent tensions and entertainment of a traditional legal thriller as Doueiri is. Give the man his Oscar already. He's earned it.

The Insult opens Jan. 26 in Toronto, Feb. 2 in Calgary and Feb. 23 in Vancouver.