Meet Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a 12-year-old boy incarcerated in a Beirut jail for stabbing—as he says—“a sonofabitch.”
“You stabbed someone,” the judge clarifies, softening the young man’s testimony.
“Yes,” Zain responds. “A sonofabitch.”
Well, what else do you call a man who accepts the hand of an 11-year-old girl—Zain’s sister—in marriage as payment? And what do you call the father and mother who sell their daughter into such an arrangement? People are quick to judge, even quicker to act, but as Capernaum shows, that sonofabitch didn’t exactly come from nowhere. And neither did Zain’s parents. To borrow an idea from Michel Foucault, the trouble with origins is that there is always something that came before.
Such is life in Capernaum, the third feature film from Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki. Capernaum—a title that invokes religious significance and chaos—continues the long lineage of movies with children trying to survive in a world that doesn’t want them: Los Olvidados, Pixote, even The 400 Blows. Powerful films all, and Capernaum confidently stands shoulder to shoulder with the lot. Al Rafeea is phenomenal as the young boy hardening his heart to a world filled with poisonous vipers, and Labaki expertly manages to keep the camera constantly positioned between Al Rafeea and the multitude of dangers lurking off to the side. Sometimes it’s the blaring horn of a passing car. Other times it is the chatter of men up to no good. No matter how far Zain wanders, sanctuary is always a mile off.
But Capernaum is not without its miracles. Through a chance meeting with an Ethiopian refugee, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), Zain is allowed to recreate a semblance of home life—something he is quite adept at—by caring for Rahil’s one-year-old son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, quite possibly the most adorable child ever captured on camera). But when Rahil is incarcerated for not having papers, a recurring issue in the movie, Zain finds himself locked once more in the predicament of having to care for a child while being a child himself.
It’s a mean old world out there, but movies are safe places where we can go and see the world for what it is without having to place ourselves in harm’s way. Capernaum is not an easy watch, but it is a beautiful one, despite how grisly it can seem at times.
Directed by Nadine Labaki
Written by Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Michelle Keserwany, Georges Khabbaz, Khaled Mouzanar
Produced by Khaled Mouzanar
Starring: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Cedra Izzam, Elias Khoury, Kawsar Al Haddad, Alaa Chouchnieh
Sony Pictures Classics, Rated R, Running time 126 minutes, Premiered May 17, 2018 at the Cannes Film Festival.
A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 26, No. 25, “Will the circle be unbroken?“
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