CAPERNAUM is a superb movie, though it’s not a heck of a lot of fun to watch. Like a number of relentless, depressing, so-real-it-hurts pictures, for most viewers it’s a once-is-enough situation. ‘Entertaining’ would not be the first word that comes to mind in describing this stunningly wrought 2018 drama, an intimate epic of despair and survival, but it most assuredly rates ‘honest’, ‘overdue’, ‘essential’ and ‘shaming’. As far as pure movie making skill goes, it’s sensationally good. Genuine heart without artifice, done with an eagle’s eye for camera fluidity, casting, performance guiding and social observation & critique the equal of any in current cinema, gifted from the supremely talented Lebanese actress & director who put it all together, Nadine Labaki.
The slums of Beirut. ‘Zain El Hajj’ (Zain Al Raffea) is 12, but his young life is anything but child-like. He does whatever he can to take care of himself and seven younger siblings, because his parents are not merely impoverished but craven enough to sell his 11-year-old sister into marriage to their scummy adult landlord, for two chickens. Fleeing that warren of misery, Zain is taken in by Ethiopian migrant worker ‘Rahil’ ( Yordanos Shiferaw), who has her own woes, facing deportation and separation from her baby. When Zain takes well-deserved street revenge, he falls into the legal system, such as it is, and makes a desperate stand for some small measure of justice. *
“I want to make a complaint against my parents. I’d want adults to listen to me. I want adults who can’t raise kids not to have any. What will I remember? Violence, insults or beatings, hit with chains, pipes, or a belt? The kindest words I heard were get out son of a whore! Bug off, piece of garbage! Life is a pile of shit. Not worth more than my shoe. I live in hell here. I burn like rotting meat. Life is a bitch.I thought we’d become good people, loved by all. But God doesn’t want that for us. He’d rather we be washrags for others.”
Nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, the $4,000,000 endeavor turned into a worldwide sleeper hit, earning $68,600,000, both the highest grossing Arabic and Middle Eastern film ever. It made just $1,662,000 in the States (a limited release), with oddly enough the lion’s share of revenue coming from China, $54,315,000. Many months of intensive personal-experience research from Labaki turned into six months of shooting that produced 520 hours of material. She and her editing team then spent 18 months to distill that down to 126 minutes of screen time.
12-year-old Zain didn’t have to act, he’s the definition of “a natural”, having lived as a Syrian refugee in Beirut’s slums since he was four. He’s nothing less than remarkable. Every one in the cast does exemplary work, including Shiferaw (like her character, an undocumented worker, refugee from Eritrea, arrested during the filming and nearly deported), Kawthar Al Haddad (Zain’s horrid mother), Fadi Kamel Youssef (the wretched father), Alaa Chouchnieh (the vile trafficker) and Cedra Izzam as the ‘Sahar’, the ill-fated sister. The baby was played by a tot named Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, who was deported back to Kenya with his mother. Labaki herself took a small role as Zain’s lawyer.
* The title, Capernaum, can mean ‘chaos’ in Arabic. It was a Biblical town, a Galilean fishing village condemned by Jesus, one of the three places that refused to repent for sins even after Christ performed miracles of healing there.
Labaki: “…children are really paying a very high price for our conflicts, and our wars, and our systems, and our stupid decisions, and governments. I felt the need to talk about the problem, and I was thinking, if those children could talk, or could express themselves, what would they say? What would they tell us, this society that ignores them?”
Along with depicting the plight of the kids, the film also shows the tragic circumstances that trap countless women in so many terrible situations around this problem-swamped globe. Its Oscar nomination would normally have locked a win; alas, it was up against the sublime Roma.