Capernaum | Review

★★★★★

You may have heard in recent news about the Indian man threatening to sue his parents for giving birth to him without his consent. Raphael Samuel believes it to be wrong to bring children into the lifelong suffering of the world. His stunt seeks to promote anti-natalism, a philosophy based on the idea that, because life is so miserable, procreation should cease immediately. If you think this is insane, watch Capernaum.

This Arabic-language film cleverly hoodwinks viewers into thinking it’s a sensational legal drama about a 12-year-old boy suing his parents for giving him life without the resources to offer a decent upbringing. Hollywood might have been tempted to give this atypical idea such a hackneyed treatment but Lebanese writer-director Nadine Labaki uses the courtroom scenes as a mere framework for a much smarter film.

Capernaum tells the harrowing tale of how young Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) came to stab the ‘son of a bitch’ who married his 10-year-old sister, and why he feels his negligent parents deserve to be attacked in court. Sounds heavy, right? It is. But it’s exquisite too.  

Zain is forced to lead a harsh life of miserable dejection in Beirut’s slums; where violence, drug-dealing, hassle from paedophiles, the denial of education, and the treatment of children as commodities are all in a day’s drudgery.

At the end of his rope, Zain flees with his belongings sneakily hidden among the garbage, landing at a tumbledown funfair owned by Joseph Jimbazian’s kooky ‘Cockroach Man.’ Kindly Ethiopian refugee Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) takes him in, and he quickly becomes childminder to her baby Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). Life seems rosier for the boy until Rahil disappears, imprisoned by the authorities. He fruitlessly scours the city in search of her – Yonas in tow on a makeshift pushchair fashioned from a skateboard and a metal pot – before succumbing to defeat and manipulation by a nefarious market-stall holder.

In a year of outstanding cinema, Labaki’s tough new film has some giants to measure up against. Capernaum manages to stand tall just fine, though; a fiercely empathetic, melancholic film scattered with unexpected flashes of beauty and humour. Zain’s attempt to expose the breasts of a giant fairground figurine and his argument that he was born black but “brightened up with time” are just two moments where drollery punctuates the sorrow here.  

As an actress, Labaki took a minor part in Capernaum. However, she made the striking decision to fill other roles with ordinary people; a move that would best represent the very ‘real struggle’ of these people. Her choice pays dividends. While Al Rafeea’s powerful, fraught performance as the prematurely hardened, world-weary quasi-parent Zain stands out by a mile, every novice actor is more persuasive than the last. Kawthar Al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Youssef are outstandingly nuanced as Zain’s cruelly cold but desperately frustrated parents, Souad and Selim. It defies belief how Labaki passed the test of directing a film minus professional actors with such aplomb. But she did.

The outcome of this accomplished writer-director’s efforts is so much more than a film. It’s an incredibly important yet painful, gritty reminder that there are children all over the world living under the most squalid, harmful conditions imaginable. It’s a distraught call for action that will likely yield no results; the failure of comparable past endeavours to act as a catalyst for social change in this respect attesting to that.

If a middle-class man’s threats to sue his parents for imposing the hardships of existence on him seem ridiculous at first, perhaps Capernaum will make you think twice about the sort of adversity Samuel’s campaign strives to highlight.

Steven Allison

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