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“Life is dog shit. Filthier than the shoes on my feet… Life is hell, life is a bitch.” These are the cynical words of a cranky old man. Except, in Lebanese film-maker Nadine Labaki’s Cannes jury prize-winning, Oscar-nominated third feature, they’re not – they’re the embittered words of a world-weary child, a 12-year-old whose short life has been spent in the inferno’s embers. This hell is the cramped streets of Beirut, people and buildings stacked on top of each other, Labaki’s camera hovering overhead to capture a bird’s-eye view of the chaos below. Indeed, Capernaum translates roughly as “chaos”, though it’s also the name of the ancient Israeli city where Jesus performed miracles. Labaki’s choice of title seems coolly ironic given that there are no miracles here, just nightmares.
Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) doesn’t know precisely how old he is; there is no birth certificate, and he has never been registered with the state. What he does know is that he’s in juvenile prison because he “stabbed a sonofabitch”, and that he wants to sue his parents (played by Kawthar al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Youssef) for “being born”. The family earns a living smuggling opiates into the neighbouring prison, but at home there’s not enough space, not enough food, and certainly not enough money to go around. Barked at by his parents, Zain snaps back, shouting and swearing, his malnourished body pushed to extremes as he completes a seemingly endless string of tasks through the gritted teeth of someone seemingly much older.
Zain dotes on his 11-year-old sister Sahar (Haita “Cedra” Izam), who is at risk of being traded as a child bride to their landlord’s son, Assaad, as she approaches puberty. In one scene she snoozes peacefully next to her brother while he lies awake, physically and mentally drained. When she gets her first period, he fashions a temporary sanitary towel from his T-shirt; when he sees her dolled up in mascara and lipstick, he explodes with protective fury. Anticipating her capture, he attempts to save her from becoming “that pig’s maid”.
If this sounds bad, things get worse. In a rare moment of relief, Zain finds solace in a tender-hearted, undocumented Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil (Yordanos Shifera) who recruits Zain as a makeshift babysitter for her adorable infant, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). Yet this solace is only temporary, as Rahil disappears and Zain is left to fend for the baby alone.
Rafeea, a non-professional actor and Syrian refugee, is the film’s secret weapon. At times, the tragedy unfolding on screen feels borderline unwatchable, but his strange, fascinating, eerily adult face offers a litany of minute expressions. There is a wisdom, a soulfulness, and an icy, angry candour that feels lived rather than performed. There’s also blackly funny humour: at one point, Rafeea improvises a voiceover for cartoons on a neighbour’s TV.
Labaki is careful to communicate Zain’s resilience even in the film’s bleakest moments, such as when he discovers a fridge of rotting food and is forced to feed baby Yonas ice cubes coated in sugar. The camera is kept at Zain’s height but doesn’t adopt his vantage point; it’s a levelling tactic that allows the viewer to see both him and his world from the perspective of a comrade.
What’s also haunting is the chemistry between Rafeea and Bankole. Whether Zain is simply staring at the toddler from inside an empty paddling pool, wrestling with a nappy or hauling him down a dirt road, there’s a potent connection between the two. One image sees the two sitting side by side, twinned: Zain in a blue sports jacket and tattered red trousers, the baby in a red coat and blue pants, both mirrored in their vulnerability.
With its memorable central child performances and emphasis on the perils of poverty and neglect, the film it most reminds me of is Benh Zeitlin’s Louisiana-set Beasts of the Southern Wild. Its focus on undocumented immigrants is timely, but it’s better, more lithe and less desperate than an Oxfam-style public service announcement. It’s frustrating, then, that Labaki chooses to punctuate the film with court scenes that depict Zain’s trial, breaking up the action in an unsatisfying way. These moments feel expressly fashioned to emphasise the injustice inflicted upon undocumented children. There is no need; the drama is compelling – and convincing – enough.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Capernaum review – an angry child lost in a world of pain | Film