Capernaum (Capharnaüm)

Lebanon (2018) Dir. Nadine Labaki

Poverty is a major global issue and whilst it is shocking in developed countries like ours, we are probably blasé about its existence in war torn countries. For her latest film, Nadine Labaki takes us to Lebanon for this brutally raw tale of life on the breadline.

Capernaum actually opens with handcuffed 12 year-old Zain El Hajj (Zain Al Rafeea) being lead into a court, joined by his parents Soud (Kawthar Al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef). The reason they are in court is that Zain is suing his parents for bringing him into such an ugly world with no future.

Zain is in prison for stabbing the “son of a bitch” husband of his 11 year-old sister Sahar (Cedra Izam), which he doesn’t regret. Via flashbacks, the story of Zain’s predicament is recounted, as the busiest and most proactive of an impoverished family, who ends up on a tragic journey that also involves the uncompromising world of illegal immigrants trying to avoid deportation.

Sometimes a film comes along that is so horrifyingly gritty, realistic, and contentious in the frankness of its depiction and exploration of a prevalent social issue that it is difficult to articulate one’s feelings of it. Capernaum is such a film. Even discussing it requires some form of deconstruction which would turn this review into a thesis that I am nowhere near smart or articulate enough to compose such a demanding text.

Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar but losing out to Roma, Capernaum is a curious blend of stark neo realism and astutely constructed fictional narrative that might raise questions about its authenticity, in this case, how precocious and extraordinarily worldly young Zain is for a 12 year-old that is the biggest stretch of the imagination.

The way he speaks, processes things, and acts with weary cynicism feels more natural coming from a 40 year-old – for instance, he recognises what is happening when Sahar starts menstruating, giving her his t-shirt to use as a pad. But without these traits, Zain wouldn’t be such an absorbing character, his inherent resilience and resourcefulness drawing us into his plight.

Parents Selim and Soud insist their decisions are well intended – for instance, Sahar being sold to Assad (Nour el Husseini) for marriage was to give her a better life. This wouldn’t ring so hollow if they didn’t have six children and treat them all with contempt. After Sahar’s departure, Zain runs away from home, fortunately taken in by Ethiopian immigrant Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) with a one year-old son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole).

Rahil needs to buy fake IDs, but can have one for free if she gives Yonas up for adoption which she refuses to do. Zain babysits Yonas while Rahil is at work until Rahil is arrested with other illegal immigrants, once again forcing Zain to rely on his wits to feed himself and Yonas. Shockingly, people on the street are unconcerned about a tiny 12 year-old carting a baby around in a cooking pot on a skateboard, like it was a regular occurrence.

Official intervention isn’t forthcoming as neither have official papers or ID cards and this is forms the basis of the film’s commentary. Every problem that occurs or incurred comes down to not having a simple piece of paper or a laminated card with your picture on it – Zain himself only guesses his age as his parents have no birth certificate. Without them, a person is invisible, denied any rights, down to the most basic of considerations.

Labaki has been accused of delivering what amounts to poverty porn here and it is relentlessly bleak, but also very human in how a young boy like Zain is forced to carry an unnecessary burden created by adults and an inflexible government system, which he does completely selflessly. As improbable as the court case angle reads, it is Labaki giving kids a voice to express how they feel about having to pay for the mistakes of their parents.

It is unquestionably upsetting that someone as young as Zain regrets being born but he has a point – why do people bring so many children into a world of poverty, especially when there is no way of getting government assistance? It’s a pressing question and as we know some people do abuse the benefits system, but in a situation where this is not an option, isn’t this plain and simple cruelty?

As much as she would like to, Labaki can’t put a positive spin on this but does go for a forward looking ending by way of making the prior two hours of abject misery worth sitting through. True to the neo-realism ethos, the cast are mostly non-professionals, but Labaki goes one further as Zain Al Rafeea is a genuine Syrian refugee who lived in the slums of Beirut and much of the story is based on his own experiences.

Whether playing Zain was cathartic or not, this intrinsic first hand understanding of this situation is the very foundation of the astounding performance Al Rafeea gives, arguably one of the most impressive turns from a youngster you’ll ever see. To carry a two hour film at such a young age is difficult for a professional but Al Rafeea makes it seem effortless, though he is almost upstaged by one year-old Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, without hyperbole the greatest screen baby ever.  

The film also has its fair share of gut punching moments to galvanise our emotions. Among them is the scene where Sahar is being forcibly taken away against both her and Zain’s protests is harrowing, reminiscent of Chaplin’s The Kid when the titular orphan is being separated from the tramp.  

Capernaum is a film that never leaves you, such is its power as a social-realist essay and the compulsion of the performances. It will yield debate as to whether it is exploitation or altruistic cinema but demands to be seen regardless of what side you end up on.

2 thoughts on “Capernaum (Capharnaüm)

  1. I agree with a lot of what you said here, especially about the ending. I felt miserable watching this poor kid but the ending did give you a slight bit of hope, which was needed. I think if it had been more misery I wouldn’t have walked away admiring the film at all.

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    1. I don’t have a problem with miserable endings if they make sense or result in shaming the people that caused or played some part in it, but it wouldn’t have worked in this instance where the protagonist is a 12 year-old boy! That said, Koreeda almost did just that with the final act of Nobody Knows so… 😮


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