A single slur becomes the lightning rod for a court case that grips but also bitterly divides a nation in The Insult, the latest feature from Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri (The Attack). The film pits a Palestinian construction worker — and technically a refugee — against the owner of a balcony he did some work on, a car mechanic who is part of a Christian political party in Lebanon. Their spat over a gutter leads to words, then blows and then a trial that becomes less and less about the insult and subsequent bodily harm and more and more about the morass of long-standing sectarian grievances that completely warp people's sense of justice.

A highly political movie that's also a personal story of two men going head-to-head while the women around them are left to pick up the pieces, this gorgeously shot and classily acted feature might be a reel too long but is nonetheless a fascinating piece of work that could flourish in niche release on international art house screens, including stateside, where Cohen Media Group will distribute. It comes with a disclaimer that it reflects the views of the makers and not that of the Lebanese state.

Of all the Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, Lebanon is the most religiously diverse, with various factions of Christians making up over 40 percent of the population. What further complicates the delicate and intricate balance of power in the country of less than 5 million nationals is the presence of around 450,000 stateless Palestinians (as well as, since a couple of years, up to 2 million Syrian refugees, though the film does not address this). Thankfully, the screenplay by Doueiri and regular collaborator Joelle Touma — one a Muslim, the other a Christian — dives into this complex reality in a way that doesn't require a lot of knowledge of the ethno-religious makeup and history of the country or the details of its justice system. Instead, the screenwriters have managed to focus on the personal and regional aspects — is there such a thing as an unclouded sense of justice in the Middle East? — without getting lost in the national particulars in between.

The Palestinian Yasser (Kamel El Basha) is a respected foreman (a position it is technically illegal for him to have) in Beirut charged with fixing building-code violations. When Yasser becomes wet when car mechanic Toni (Adel Karam) waters the plants on his terrace overhead, he discovers the balcony's illegal drainpipe and suggests fixing it too, but Toni slams the door in his face. This leads to an insult from Yasser's side and then Toni's insistence on a full apology, which Yasser finds hard to do. In an echo of the historical speeches of Bachir Gemayel — an assassinated Christian leader who suggested Palestinians should be expelled from the country — that Toni listens to on TV, he tells Yasser he wishes Ariel Sharon would "wipe them out," which leads to Yasser breaking a few of Toni's ribs.

Doueiri's structure is that of a classical ripple-effect tale with one small thing leading to increasingly bigger things until they spiral completely out of control and they find themselves facing off in the courtroom. When the case goes to a higher court, Yasser is represented by the quick-thinking but inexperienced Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud) while Toni has found himself the Christian faction's star lawyer, Wajdi (Camille Salameh), an outwardly jovial but, when necessary, theatrically indignant character who always seems to have another few aces up his sleeve.

The film's midsection is its juiciest, with the various interrogations, witnesses and depositions revealing several sides to the story and underlining the idea that blame is never something that's as clear-cut as it might at first appear. As it moves away from the specifics of the case, The Insult also starts exploring more abstract matters such as what triggers people, is there such a thing as a too-emotional response and the extent to which historical grievances count and influence people’s behavior today. The medical history of Toni's pregnant wife (Rita Hayek) is made public as both sides start to dig for possible ammunition in their opponents' private lives and history. This happens even against the desire of the two men, who both claim they want a "fair trial." But is such a thing even possible? Doueiri, whose lawyer mother was a consultant on the film, seems to suggest that court cases, especially when they become more high-profile, start taking on a life and momentum of their own.

Combined with the fact that it is practically impossible for people in the Middle East to cast an unbiased eye on anyone else because each side has suffered historical injustices and hardships at the hands of others, this creates a potentially explosive, powder-keg situation. The story-hungry media will then further fan the flames, as happens here. A cynic might say that going through the motions of a trial at least gives the parties involved a way to unburden themselves before a biased magistrate will render a random verdict. But if this is what Doueiri wanted to say, he undermines this idea in the unnecessary last reel, during which the presiding justice (Julia Kassar) renders the verdict, which, she states, is not unanimous. It feels like an ending that wants to give a sense of Hollywood closure and art house ambiguity at the same time but ends up feeling muddled, and it's a bit of a let-down. A sudden and major revelation involving the parties' two lawyers also seems a little too clearly designed to shock both the audience and the characters.

Overall, however, the insights are perhaps not new but fluidly and convincingly laid out, while the film also continuously suggests that the women tend to be less irrational and more forgiving than the men, for whom honor and sincerity seem more important than stability and creating a workable environment for everyone.

This gripping genre yarn also looks very good. Doueiri, who worked on the early films of Tarantino as a camera assistant, here once more collaborated with The Attack's cinematographer, Tommaso Fiorilli. Their style is again fluid and sinuous, at once direct and subtly poetic. "Subtle" isn't a word that could be applied to Eric Neveux's driving score, however, with the music accompanying practically all the scenes outside the courtroom.

Production companies: Ezekiel Films, Tessalit Productions, Rouge International, Cohen Media Group, Scope Pictures, Douri Films
Cast: Adel Karam, Rita Hayek, Kamel El Basha, Christine Choueiri, Camille Salameh, Diamand Bou Abboud, Julia Kassar
Director: Ziad Doueiri
Screenplay: Ziad Doueiri, Joelle Touma
Producers: Antoun Sehnaoui, Jean Brehat, Rachid Bouchareb, Julie Gayet, Nadia Turincev
Director of photography: Tommaso Fiorilli
Production designer: Hussein Baydoun
Editor: Dominique Marcombe
Music: Eric Neveux
Casting: Abla Khoury
Sales: Indie Sales
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)

In Arabic
No rating, 113 minutes