Capernaum (2018)

Capernaum is Nadine Labaki’s heartbreaking howl of rage and compassion on behalf of innocence compromised in a hell on earth.

This Boy's Life

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Capernaum is heartbreaking. It’s set in a city in unremitting chaos, modern Beirut. And the story could not exist without the amazing child at the centre. Zain al Rafeea is Zain, a 12-year-old boy who is taking his parents to court for bringing him into the world and failing to care for him.

In flashback, we see the events that led to this. His mother (Kawthar al Haddad) and (Fadi Kamel Youssef) and their many children live in feckless squalor in a crumbling building. They eke out a bare, idle existence by petty crime. Zain is closest to his sister Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam). He tries to save her – a young girl is a valuable commodity – from being ‘sold’ by his parents to the local shopkeeper.

When Zain runs away in anger, a kindly illegal Ethiopian immigrant (Yordanos Shiferaw) shelters him in her shantytown shack. In return he minds her baby son ((Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). Left alone, he resorts to ingeniously mature schemes to keep the corrugated iron roof over their heads.

Capernaum is shot with extreme empathy. Nadine Labaki gets wonderful performances from her non-professional actors, whose real lives overlap with those of the characters they play, as she delves into the lives of embattled people trying to survive in impossible circumstances. The teeming old Lebanese city isn’t functioning. It can’t support its own vulnerable inhabitants, let alone the recent influx of Syrian refugees. Its exploited underclass of illegal immigrants are arbitrarily vulnerable and market traders have a thriving business in people trafficking out of there.

Capernaum is distressing but it also has redeeming warmth and humour. It’s woven together by Zain’s extraordinary performance, inhabiting a role not far removed from his own life. Though very young, he’s forced by life into the adult role of a precocious wheeler dealer, but basically he’s trying to do good in a world gone bad. The film is gruelling but a must-see.

Capernaum screened at the Cannes Film Festival and is released on 1 February 2019 in the UK.

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