While serving a five-year sentence for a violent crime, a 12-year-old Lebanese boy sues his parents for neglect, seeking justice in the courtroom. Cannes Film Festival 2018 Winner Jury Prize.
“Capernaum,” Nadine Labaki’s hectic and heartbreaking new film, borrows its name from an ancient city condemned to hell, according to the Book of Matthew, by Jesus himself. The word has since become a synonym for chaos, and modern Beirut as captured by Ms. Labaki’s camera is a teeming vision of the inferno, a place without peace, mercy or order.
Its crowded streets and makeshift dwellings hold endless desperation, but the movie is too busy, too angry and too absorbing — too exciting, you might say — to succumb to despair. The sources of its remarkable energy are Ms. Labaki’s curiosity and the charisma of her young star, Zain al Rafeea, who plays a boy named Zain.
Zain is around 12, though his precise age is unknown to him, his parents or the Lebanese authorities. In some ways, he looks much younger, a skinny urchin with big eyes and an air of worried determination. But he also seems older than his years — hard-working and resilient, with an impressive command of profanity and a steely defiance that can back down grown men.
When we first meet Zain, he is in jail and then in court. He has brought suit against his mother (Kawthar al Haddad) and father (Fadi Kamel Youssef) for bringing him into the world and failing to care for him or their other children. The courtroom scenes that frame the tale of Zain’s ordeal at home and his adventures once he runs away serve a few distinct purposes. They offer a measure of comfort — a guarantee that whatever horrors he endures, our hero will at least survive — and also a dose of semi-satirical social critique.
The kindly, avuncular judge (played by an actual retired Lebanese jurist named Elias Khoury) and the officious lawyers representing Zain and his parents speak a language of reasoned inquiry and civic enlightenment. Their rhetorical pomp is meant to show the benevolent, problem-solving authority of the state, which has the power to discipline and protect its citizens. Everything that happens outside the court makes a mockery of this assertion.
At first, Zain finds relief from his disorderly home in the routines of work and the company of his siblings, especially his sister Sahar. He is in constant motion, running errands for shopkeepers in his neighborhood and helping his parents with their almost-legal and brazenly criminal enterprises. When he fails to prevent them from marrying off Sahar, who is 11, to their landlord’s son, Zain flees. He seeks refuge in a shabby amusement park, and finds it with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an African refugee who lives in a nearby shantytown with her toddler son, Jonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole).
Zain looks after Jonas while Rahil, who is working illegally with a forged permit, scrubs floors and hauls garbage. The precariousness of their household is agonizing, even as the tenderness that holds it together is touching and understated. There is also an element of comedy in the spectacle of Zain and Jonas as they make their way through the chaos, the younger child nestled into a cooking pot mounted on a skateboard that his caretaker pulls along through the streets.
You might see a trace of Huck Finn in Zain — a wily, footloose boy whose wanderings illuminate the absurdities and horrors of the larger world. He’s also, in circumstance if not in attitude, like a Dickens hero navigating a metropolis where poverty and cruelty threaten to overwhelm kindness and fellow feeling.
That they don’t quite succeed is testament to the strength of Labaki’s humanist convictions and also to her instincts as a storyteller. Her two previous features, “Caramel” and “Where Do We Go Now,” examine aspects of Lebanese life that are somewhat less harsh than the ones depicted in “Capernaum” with a similarly acute sense of the injustices and contradictions that plague the country. They are also full of warmth and humor, which this film insists are never absent, even in dire circumstances.
Which is not to say that anything here is sugar-coated. The buying and selling of children is contemplated with chilling matter-of-factness, and the world Zain inhabits is one where human bonds have become brutally transactional. Forced to become a shrewd materialist — in his interactions with adults he is almost always trying to make a deal or work an angle — he somehow clings to a sense of honor and a capacity for empathy.
Does Zain’s goodness arise from childish innocence or a magically saintly disposition? In al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee with no training as an actor, Labaki has found a performer who renders such questions moot. This is a matter less of authenticity than of charisma. His charm and magnetism amount to a kind of moral authority. You don’t just root for Zain or believe in him: You trust him.
Rahil sees that. Jonas does too. And “Capernaum,” a sprawling tale wrenched from real life, goes beyond the conventions of documentary or realism into a mode of representation that doesn’t quite have a name. It’s a fairy tale and an opera, a potboiler and a news bulletin, a howl of protest and an anthem of resistance.
A.O. Scott, The New York Times, 13th December 2018.
Capernaüm opens on a scene of a malnourished boy being examined by a doctor, who pronounces that, owing to the child’s lack of baby teeth, he must be 12 years old. The scene has a probing documentary feel, which makes you think the boy will be an incidental figure touched upon in order to set a scene of neglect before the film begins to address its true subject. In reality, the child will be Capernaüm’s protagonist, tasked with shouldering the film’s sweeping emotional pull and providing its moral backbone.
From here the film moves swiftly on, as the boy, Zain, purging a prison sentence for stabbing someone, faces his parents in court, where he is suing them for creating him. Capernaüm focuses on the events leading up to the attack, showing in detail how Zain was driven to act as he did.
The narrative framework for the story is clunkily handled, giving the audience a barrage of exposition, and the switches between the courtroom scenes and the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the film are also slightly heavy-handed. But director and co-writer Nadine Labaki’s storytelling is impeccable in the story proper, and the film attains a real emotional sweep, enough to paper over technical cracks and excuse the odd lurch into sentimentalism.
It’s set among the hand-to-mouth people of a city in Lebanon, where Zain helps his overwhelmed parents scrape a living. In a succession of establishing scenes, the child is seen taking on odd jobs, street hustling or helping his parents deal drugs into a prison. Labaki shows real focus in these scenes, creating a sense of Zain’s everyday life from brushstrokes: a dirty, yawning face here; a slap from his mother there; a shot of the boy’s miniature frame lugging a canister; his exhausted body curled up alongside three siblings on an unmade bed.
She is abetted in these moments by a fine performance from Zain Al-Rafeea: angel-faced, resolute, he shows mettle in scenes with his character’s parents, who want to sell off their daughter Sahar to the local grocer. There is also a gentleness, a lived-in candour in his body language, suggesting real affection for Sahar. It’s crucial to the story that we believe this child capable of moral judgment – and Al-Rafeea’s performance grows in commensurate fervour during the rest of the film.
After Sahar is forcibly married, Zain flees his parents, arriving at a fairground abutting a roadside slum, where he becomes involved with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian refugee forced to hide her baby from the authorities and seeking to get papers falsified by Aspro, a devious slumlord. Zain is able to babysit Rahil’s infant while she works – but when Rahil disappears he is obligated to look after the child and find ways to make money.
This is where Capernaüm reaches new heights: the sequencing of scenes gives the film a propulsive rhythm, and the iconography of Zain toting the baby through grimy streets has immense power. Labaki’s screenplay strikes the right notes, puncturing what could be a cloying set-up – as when Zain sets up a mirror for the baby to watch cartoons on the neighbours’ television and supplements the dialogue himself, full of ‘dickhead’s and ‘cocksucker’s. The storytelling is capable, revisiting established themes, such as hustles Zain has learned, or the idea that children have a price: Sahar was worth five chickens; the baby $500.
Some will find the film’s politics belaboured, but Labaki has earned the right, with her fully evidenced inquiry into destitution, to ram points home. The lives of women are pointedly examined, as Labaki shows women compromised by men and imprisoned by reproduction. Rahil’s child; Zain’s pregnant mother; the fate that befalls Sahar after her arranged marriage aged 11: these elements are picked out and allowed to make a statement. Labaki is in enormous control, allowing her tale to broaden out at will or zoom back in on Zain’s scrabbling, his exhausted determination to do right.
Returning to court for an impassioned finale, the film has a lot of narrative to tie up and does so a little sketchily, occasionally also slipping into grandstanding. But even here there are elements of beauty, and the emotional heft the film has accrued carries it along. Al-Rafeea’s authenticity also help him sell his final monologue triumphantly. Capernaüm, in the Bible, was a town cursed by Jesus, saying it would never accede to heaven; Labaki holds out hope that a good boy might get there some day.
Caspar Salmon, Sight & Sound, 5th October 2018.