“Capernaum” is as powerful a piece of film making as we’ve seen in recent years.
Captivating, immersive, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting, it never fails to feel authentic to the trials faced by real-life people upon whose experiences the screenplay draws inspiration.
It’s so compelling, in fact, that at times it’s difficult to keep in mind what we’re watching is fictional.
What’s it about?
“Capernaum” centers around 12-year-old (maybe) Zain (Zain al Rafeea), a Lebanese boy serving time in a juvenile prison for committing a violent crime. (The reason his age is questionable is actually important to the film’s plot and themes.)
When audiences first meet him, however, he’s on the plaintiff’s side of a courtroom. With the help of an attorney, he files suit against his parents. Their crime? Bringing him into the world in the first place.
The scene then shift to how Zain got to that place and moment. He shares a room with five siblings and no bed. He works in the streets doing all manner of odd jobs.
We learn very quickly that Zain is a quick-witted, street-smart boy who can take care of himself. But his young eyes have seen too much too soon.
Any youthful innocence he might have had was stripped away long ago. What remains are his instincts and desire to protect the few people in his life he truly loves.
A terrible betrayal drives Zain to leave his parents behind and survive on his own. In his travels he meets Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian migrant working illegally to support her toddler-age son, Yonas.
Zain and Rahil thus find themselves unlikely friends and partners, simply trying to help each other and Yonas survive.
But the world they live in is devoid of opportunities and fraught with predators. The choices they both make to possibly escape their dire circumstances lead them both to that courtroom, to a reckoning between a boy old beyond his years and the people who brought him into that oppressive and dangerous world.
Visual poetry in chaos
“Capernaum,” or “Capharnaüm” in French, beyond its Biblical significance is a word that’s come to signify “chaos” or “mess” in contemporary literature.
Lebanese director Nadine Labaki (“Where Do We Go Now?“) fills much of her film visually with the mess that is ordinary life for the migrants, the refugees, and native Lebanese living in her country.
And yet, despite all the brutal realities and inescapable absurdities all around them, the people who live in this world find a rhythm. They have a pattern, a method of life that leads to subsistence.
Labaki finds that rhythm amidst the chaos. She brings it life on screen by pointing her cameras at the daily routines of the sprawling city’s most impoverished residents.
Labaki casts a probing but sympathetic eye upon the conditions that perpetuate a desperate brand of pragmatism. She wants her audience to see it all and understand the forces that govern these people’s lives beyond laws or politicians.
What audiences get, in turn, is a stunningly rendered tapestry of shared existence, brilliant in its intricacy and enthralling in its detail.
It’s critically important to note that “Capernaum” isn’t all gloom and despair — far from it.
In fact, the film is often surprisingly funny thanks to the pluckiness of its young star. Labaki places Zain within many moments in the film where the boy sees through the lies adults resign themselves to and perpetuate, and he calls them out without fear.
Put another way, the kid’s got a keen eye and a foul mouth. The combination makes him all the easier to root for as he scrapes by to survive.
Labaki also delivers many moments of genuine tenderness and powerful emotion. Many of these come once Zain comes across Rahil and Yonas, a family unit still governed by harsh realities but not compromised by nihilistic pragmatism.
It’s the film’s capacity for finding humor and compassion amidst the despair that makes “Capernaum” such a compelling portrait of humanity. It’s absolutely worth your time if you enjoy foreign films and underdog stories.
The film is a little long at just over two hours, but it’s worth every minute for its ultimately hopeful message.
Starring Zain al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole. Directed by Nadine Labaki.
Running time: 126 minutes
Rated R for language and some drug material.