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.
Total Number of Responses: 75
Film Score (0-5): 4.84
There were 116 people in attendance for a deeply emotive screening of Capernaum. The film's average puts it as the 6th highest-rated film ever shown at GFS (between Volver and Water).
"Heartbreaking", or something similar, was used by many responses as the film resonated with many people. "Heartbreaking - but such amazing acting - even from little Yonas. I'll have trouble sleeping tonight.""Shocking - but a film that needed to be made." "Harrowing. What do we do in response?" "Superb - heartbreaking. Too real - too much for me." "A movie that will resonate in my mind for a long time."
The acting was key to the depth of the film for many people as well. "Amazing acting - powerful story - but when will it stop?? More from Nadine Labaki please." "Truly remarkable. Such a natural chemistry between Zain and Yonas." "Incredibly moving. Amazing young boy actor." "Superb performance by Zain. Terrible conditions but doubtless realistic." "A tough watch but an amazing film with tremendous performances." "Zain - what a remarkable performance." "Not an easy film to assess. The young lad made it."
The ending of the film left a number of people considering what happened next. "A fantastic film which was very sad but with moments of real humour and heart warming moments. I did not understand what happened at the end - did they pardon them both?" "I enjoyed the film in fact the acting was so good it was believable, amazing how the children made this film worthwhile. Nice to have a happy ending." "What brilliant acting, so moving. At least it had a happy ending for some."
In all, there were many comments from people deeply impacted by what they had watched...
"Such a powerful and heart-breaking story. So well filmed and unflinching. Zain was amazing and portrayed all the hurt and desperation felt by thousands of children worldwide. For me the Oscar had to go to the baby - astonishing."
"Stunning film that goes to the heart of how humans live today. How that has not changed and yet how it needs to change. How the surprising wisdom of a child - with searing honesty - tells his society that it needs to change. We, in the Western world, glibly talk about how important education is to 3rd world countries, but here is proof, if you like, that even without education there are human truths that are evident to us all - if we only listen. The film delivered these insightful messages in a well-crafted, polished framework that only cinema can provide. Perfect GFS film!"
"Heart-wrenching, wonderful acting, gripping story, loved the soundtrack, current-humanising the global tragedy so well."
"A very powerful and moving film, with amazing performances - even from the baby!"
"Yonas for an Oscar! Excellent acting, a quiet charm despite their desperate situation."
"Harrowing; sad; occasionally uplifiting - extremely well acted."
"Very moving, powerful."
"Just amazing, heart breaking, tragic. Nadine Labaki is an incredible film maker. What fantastic performances from Zain and the baby."
"Heartbreaking. The write ups could not have prepared me for it, neither reviews nor Wikipedia."
"Extremely harrowing. Totally engrossing"
"One of the most powerful films I have seen."
"A wonderful film. Absolutely heartbreaking but hit so many nails on the head. He was so good."
"There should be a category better than excellent for this film. Ranks among the best I have seen at GFS."
"Thank you for screening that amazing film. It will stay with me for ever. It should have been on national release, no international release."
"Hats off to Ms Labaki - hard hitting, well observed. Sharp cinematography - excellent acting. Perhaps a tad too long."
"Ghostly, grim, fascinating. Infinite hugs needed."
"Excellent acting and direction. Sharp, colourful visuals. When are we going to get a jolly film?"
"Like the name of the film, Zain's life is torn by chaos creating this mesmerising heartbreaking story. Very good."
"A bleak and desperate film and, like Zain, almost completely without reward."
"Remarkable acting and portrait of Zain. How do you have any sort of adult life with all that baggage? It will take generations. Tender and depressing at the same time."
"A powerful and sad message."
"Very moving. Bit like BBC Children in Need."
"What a brilliant young actor. It was heart wrenching. So moving. Amazing film maker."
"Well made film but so depressing. I could not take any more. How can people live like that?"
"A brilliant insight into a heartbreaking existence. What lives these people have to lead. Amazing acting and wonderful filming."
"All acting was excellent even the baby. Powerful film - good photography too."
"Wow and harrowing - but a film that needed making."
"But hard to watch."
"Terrific - best so far. Yonas should have got the Oscar."
"A bit long but an insight into the misery of refugees."
"The sad thing is it is still going on. I feel so so sad."
"Shocking, so well filmed. I loved the baby!"
"Powerful and brilliant. Outstanding acting all emphasises the helplessness of so many people."
"Unbearable, in the privileged western eyes. Brutally honest and powerful study of heroic innocence and morality in a sea of confusion and corruption."
"Favourite film of all seasons so far."
"I don't care if the editing or other technical aspects could be better - this movie simply bowled me over, will haunt my thoughts for days. "
"Powerful and heartrending."
"Very disturbing. An eye-opener for those of us who take our lives for granted."
"This is the sort of film I joined the Society for. I would rate it as excellent. It was very interesting to see it after a day of trivial British electioneering and backbiting and watch people with real problems. Zain demonstrated more maturity and empathy than many “adults” achieve in a lifetime. I shall remember the closing shot of his smiling face for a long time. I was pleased to hear that in real life he is going to Norway - a civilised country compared to many in the West. I am sure he will do very well whatever direction he takes.
Yonas should of course have a career of his own. It was delightful to watch the development of his relationship with Zain although there were moments when the mother in me wanted to gather him up and keep him safe.
The problems of Zain’s parents were complex and you could not blame them entirely for the tragedy which befell Sahar. Zain himself would have understood this as he grew older and had complex responsibilities of his own.I was interested in the court process and even the crowded prison was not entirely devoid of moments of kindness.
The only slightly jarring moment for me was the American style “schmaltzy” return of Yonas to his mother. This did not ring true with the rest of the film and I rather fear that in the real world his mother might have been doomed to years of searching for him even if he survived."
"I found the film riveting, torturous, funny and yet a lavish portrayal of real life. It touched on every cruel aspect of mans existence in life —- religion, politics, betrayal, love, hatred, jealousy to name a few. This was the most powerful film I have ever seen. The photography, music, the star role were all intensely and brilliantly achieved. It has haunted me and impacted so deeply that I urge myself to find a path to aid. A DEEPLY SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE. Thanks G.F.S."
"This does not look like cinema, nor does this look like acting. We spiral into the slums from a stunning aerial shot, reminiscent of wildlife footage of an ant hill or termite mound, to meet Zain. With the same lean, pinched face and liquid, hu ted eyes of Billy in 'Kes', he takes the whole film on his shoulders as he is in virtually every shot. It is a towering and convincing portrayal of a life lived trapped in the cycle of grinding poverty where he has to work ceaselessly just to stand still. It is well done, with able support from the superb and lovely Yonas and Rahil and little sense of the familiar 'message movie' tub thumping (Mr Loach take note). But this is not your standard sob story, the apparent lesson; that with strength, conviction and an unbending will and commitment to a higher moral path, things may eventually fall in your favour is an unusual one. A brave piece of film-making and a pretty hard line conclusion."
"Sitting in my comfy Surrey seat I squirmed at the poverty Zain and Beirut were facing. For me it was an intense film, I felt I held my breath all the way through it, I liked the documentary style, not much sentimentality thank goodness, and I agree that it was rather clunky in places with the flashbacks, but it worked. Incredible acting from such a young boy. (So why is the film so popular in China?)"
"Deserves a score of 6 out of 5.
Difficult to find the right words. I struggled to get to sleep as the film kept playing on my mind. A stunning film. Shocking. Heartbreaking. Compelling performances by all the cast, with Zain absolutely outstanding. Incredible to know he was not a professional actor...and then the thought that perhaps he was so convincing because what was portrayed has been everyday reality for him, which makes it even more shocking and heartbreaking. I will recommend this to everyone (with a warning there may be tears...)"
"A worthy winner of the Cannes Jury Prize. Great acting, very sad. Highlighted the disastrous impact of war and poverty on the population. The best this year."