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In today's Beirut, an insult blown out of proportions finds Toni, a Lebanese Christian, and Yasser, a Palestinian refugee, in court. From secret wounds to traumatic revelations, the media circus surrounding the case puts Lebanon through a social explosion, forcing Toni and Yasser to reconsider their lives and prejudices.
Exchange of insults confirms deep historic hatreds.
The original Lebanese title, "Case No. 23," plays to the domestic audience because it emphasizes the courtroom drama. That's the personal story.
The English translation works better for the international audience. The broader reference suggests the film's application to the whole of the warring Middle East. That society is so obsessed with honour that it is paralyzed by any "Insult," real or perceived. The Palestinians' shame at the Naqba, their failure to have prevented the creation of Israel, still prevents their negotiation of a peaceful coexistence.
Israel hovers at the margin here, cited as the Arabs' common demon. Ariel Sharon is a curse. The Palestinians' ultimate insult is to declare the Christian Arab a Zionist - or at least, an enabler of Israel. The film's central insults are exchanged by a Christian Arab mechanic, Tony, and a Palestinian refugee, construction foreman Yasser.
Their war starts small enough: Tony has an illegal pipe, which soaks Yasser. After insulting Tony Yasser repairs the pipe, which Tony smashes.
Both heroes find our understanding. The Palestinian may be given the greater sympathy and he's played as a more thoughtful, flexible figure. But the revelation of the Christian Tony's past enhances his character too. Both men prove victims of their respective people's history. For both, their history tempts them to blame all their own failure son that unfortunate history and their old enemy.
The two trial scenes are superb drama. In each the magistrate conducts an intensive, searching examination of the case. The first bogs down when neither the plaintiff nor the accused stoops to repeat the insult that prompted Yasser's attack.
The second trial reaches the same conclusion but with more satisfactory effect. Indeed, the losing side now seems as satisfied with the verdict as the winner. That's because Tony has had his story told too, his anger and indignation explained in context. In the lawyers' summary, each makes the other's case. The antagonism turns into understanding.
Apart from the trials, the principals' true reconciliation happens in two scenes outside the court, before the verdict. In the first Tony casually helps his enemy restart his car. In the second, Yasser baits Tony into punching him, so he goes into the court with his own aching pair of ribs. An eye for an eye, a rib for a rib. At the end, after all the screaming, indignation and violence, the reconciliation is the men's silent, long-distance lock of the eyes.
Both heroes - and their respective gangs of followers - carry the weight of history. Both have suffered violence, prejudice, victimization, which their self-respect challenges them to remember. Both men suffer increasing and increasingly harsh consequences for their intransigence.
The film's message is the need to acknowledge the historic conflict, to recognize the long period of inhumane abuse, but to turn the page, to move on, to find a way to make a mutually respectful peace. Again, the implication is that this message extends beyond the film's conflict between Palestinian and Christian to include the Jewish state as well.
There's an additional frisson when Yasser's lawyer is revealed to be Tony's more famous lawyer's daughter. This generational tension replays the theme of moving on from the past. Both the woman lawyer and the woman chief judge tacitly personify the new Middle East, the emergence of empowered womanhood in that archly patriarchal society.
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