- Review by Catey Clarkson
Nadine Labaki’s latest depiction of Lebanese life is a magnificent look into the chaotic existence of a young boy, and those he encounters, on the streets of Beirut. Zain, a feisty and sharp child, at an age even his parents do not know, is at once a beacon of despair and hope for the children in the world. His caring and noble nature fight to overcome the horrors the world has brought upon him, and Capernaum follows his search for a life worth living, along with his subsequent endeavour to sue his parents for bringing him into existence.
The phenomenal actors refuse to allow you to remove your gaze from the screen for even one moment, lest you miss an indicative tear or sassy, clever remark. Zain is charismatic and cheeky, eyes tinged with a meaningful sadness, but his defiance is infectious and remarkable from such a small boy (Zain Al Rafeea, the actor, himself is a Syrian refugee). Yonas, the baby of an illegal Ethiopian worker named Rahil, who Zain ends up caring for, provides adorable comedic relief from what, at times, can be unbearably difficult to watch. Although the film is, of course, nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars, the fact that Labaki got child actors to perform the way they did, warrants an award in its own right.
The cinematography is simply stunning. Strong, vibrant colours are all the more powerful in contrast to the barren, sprawlings shots of a Beirut which seems terribly cold and uninviting. This contextualises Zain’s life; at times it feels like he will finally manage to cocoon himself into a position of safety in the warm and colourful home which Rahil invites him into, but soon we are jolted back to the bleak prospect of the next day with pan shots of a grey metropolis. The camerawork is chaotic and stressful when it needs to be, which serves to extract deep emotion from the viewer; but is also gentle and calming when you need it to be, which is a welcome relief from the tragic unfolding story.
More than anything, the film must be viewed as a story of empathy. It is more than just this incredible boy. It shows that no matter your intentions or hopes for your life, your circumstances can derail those dreams beyond repair. Zain’s story is not unique to those trying to prove themselves in a world which continuously throws harsh obstacles at them. Zain’s parents’ eloquent monologues of what life is like for them is poignant in its illustration of their circumstances. They cannot be judged for the actions, not choices, that they have been forced to make. Capernaum invokes sympathy, but you cannot espouse to empathise with Zain if you do not empathise with children drowning in the Mediterranean, dying of hunger in Kuwait or being caged at borders in the US - they are all the same child.
In a world where it is not uncommon to be proudly anti-immigrant and Western-centric, it was an honour to spend two hours in a world where the lives of people in situations of such desperation and difficulty is depicted with empathy, gentleness and respect. Labaki has portrayed one boy’s story, which is so harrowingly visceral and objectively traumatising, with such profound humanity. Capernaum is truly affecting from beginning to end, equal parts heartwarming and gut wrenching.