Film: “Capernaum”; Director: Nadine Labaki; Cast: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure, Bankole, Kawthar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Youssef, Cedra Izam, Alaa Chouchnieh, Nadine Labaki; Rating: ****
“Capernaum”, which roughly means chaos, is much more than a reductionist’s vision of the vulnerability of children in a world of extreme poverty.
We have seen films about impoverished children right from “Salaam Bombay” to “Slumdog Millionaire” to “Lion” and a pack of Iranian films to boot. But this one, on the emotional quotient is very intense and almost unbearable to witness as it surpasses any other film seen earlier.
Narrated in a non-linear format and designed as a documentary, the director uses the courtroom trial as the framing device where a singularly focused, self-possessed Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), faces off for a crime he did and later sues his parents (Kawsar Al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Yousef) for neglect, abuse and for the crime of bringing him into this terrible world.
“I’m living in hell,” that’s how he describes his life to the judge.
Zain, a child close to adolescence, whose true age no one can specify since neither he nor his own parents know it. He has several siblings and they all work to support the family.
Despite their despicable lifestyle, Zain is very close to his siblings, especially to his younger sister, Sahar (Cedra Izam). So when his parents decide to get her married off to his employer, he objects to their decision, tries to stop the marriage. On failing to do so, he leaves home.
He lands up in an amusement park where he meets an undocumented Ethiopian bathroom attendant named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) who has her infant son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure) stowed away in a stall at work. Rahil sees in Zain an opportunity to have him baby sit while she’s at work in exchange for room and board. Naturally, tragedy intervenes forcing Zain back onto the streets, but this time literally carrying a hungry infant in his arms.
What is striking about the narrative is the way it avoids moral pessimism that could arise in the situation. Instead, it displays a range of emotions in the behaviour of the child Zain, ranging from his pragmatic coldness as a hardened fighter to generosity and detachment that allows him to take charge of Yonas, whom he must protect as an adult, even though the two characters are only separated by a few years. The discreet affective bond that unites them keeps alive in Zain the innocence and freshness of his early childhood until he becomes immune to the adversities that beset him.
Each actor lives their character, delivering a passionate, natural performance that makes you invest in them or detest them.
Needless to say, through Zain’s point of view, “Capharnaüm” takes you to hell on earth, but through it all, Zain maintains a ferocious stance. He bravely stands up to anyone who would try to harm him or the baby with an intense gaze or with a string of expletives.
Zain’s trajectory may look unrelentingly grim, but director Labaki punctuates the narrative with moments of joy, warmth and humour. And her husband and producer Khaled Mouzanar’s orchestral score offers sweet notes of optimistic promise among the often discordant strings.
Cinematographer Christopher Aoun’s camera work captures Beirut with all its incessant urban activities inclusive of the cacophony in a very unobtrusive manner where bright colours are missing and the pastel palette elevates the sombre tale. It also reveals that squalor is universally alike, be it in whichever corner of the globe.
While Konstantin Bock and Laure Gardette have mounted the film astutely with their fine edits, there are some transitions that appear jerky. But nevertheless, the film overall leaves you spellbound.