Review by Paula Farmer
This stunning drama from the Middle East could have been titled A Simple Apology, with the conflict, the story’s entire premise resolved quickly and easily with those two ever elusive words, “I’m sorry.” Instead it proves there would be nothing simple about an apology as there’s nothing simple about this film. It’s achingly complex and speaks volumes about what it means to be a victim, a refugee, and who bears the burden of a nation’s past sins. A spark turns into a flame of ethnic tension when a minor incident and misunderstanding between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee embroils the two in a lawsuit. Along the way, families feud and communities and cultures collide. With this seemingly simple premise, Beirut native, director Ziad Doueiri (“Lila Says” and “West Bierut”) has woven a complex drama touching on several social issues and leaving audiences both aghast and moved. By the film’s conclusion, it’s obvious why it has garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film (and will probably win).
Palestinian general contractor Yasser Salameh, is overseeing a pivotal project in a Beirut neighborhood. While canvassing the project’s progress, he notices a damaged gutter coming from one of the resident’s houses. When he approaches the owner, Tony Hannah, offering to fix it, he is met with disgust, disdain and a resounding no to his offer. When the gutter’s issue persists and Tony manages to land a bucketful of water Yasser’s way, understandable cursing ensues and hostility between the two ignite. After a series of events, The hot tempered, seemingly easily offended Tony insists on an apology from Yasser. Although the promise of an apology is extended by the company he works for, and Yasser is poised to relent, things instead take a turn for the worse. In the face of Yasser’s pride sucking moment, Tony hurls an insult that encompasses Yasser’s entire nation. Instead of an apology, Tony gets two broken ribs.
The matter quickly escalates from the hospital to the courtroom, with both parties easily lawyered up because of the social significance of their case. Their war of words result in a two month trial and a media frenzy that divide the country and drudge up deep wounds that go far beyond slander and offense exchanged between a resident and a refugee. The communities on both sides of the political divide are swept up in the emotional battle that the tense legal drama has unleashed. Things take an unexpected turn when true motives are unearthed and the plaintiff’s traumatic family history revealed. We’ve long been aware of the victimization of Palestinians, but the trial raises questions as to who really is the victim, or are they both? Are they martyrs of insults and punches, or politics, war, ethnic cleansing and stolen childhoods? Will this trial just settle a dispute over a gutter or a grudge, or could it set a precedent by examining old war wounds?
Doueiri proves graceful and adept at navigating the obvious, as well as introducing the complex and profound. His main characters, portrayed fantastically by Adel Karam and Kamel El Basha, go from seemingly one dimensional to multi-layered. The film’s pitch perfect pacing and the superbly written political drama, coupled with its humanitarian factor, make it not only one of the best foreign films of 2017, but one of the best films of the year.