A Mesmerising Masterpiece
At the Oscars this year the Best Foreign Film category was stacked with many outstanding masterworks, from Roma to Cold War. Yet it could be argued that Capernaum is the best of them all as it is unquestionably one of the best films released in the last year. It paraded around the film festival circuit and won the Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival which is an impressive achievement.
Capernaum in Arabic means chaos and as film titles go, this may be one of the most accurate. The story traces Zain El Hajj, a 12-year-old living in the harsh Lebanese climate. From its opening frame, Capernaum establishes the vibrancy of childhood life in the poverty-stricken centre of Beirut. Instantly, the camera chases Zain as he runs through the streets with a group of boys, giving off a very visceral sense of what his experiences in such an environment were truly like. But this allure of childhood innocence is quickly dismantled when Zain is pictured handcuffed, walking into a courtroom.
As he is brought to the stand, we realise that Zain is now serving a five-year sentence for stabbing someone, but the purpose of Zain’s visit to court now is for something different. Rather, Zain has taken a stand against his parents whom he proceeds to sue for neglect. This astounding turn of events marks very clearly the intentions of director and writer Nadine Labaki who brilliantly balances a call for child innocence in an environment where children are never allowed innocence.
The entire film works as a flashback in order to understand why Zain has been imprisoned and why he is suing his parents. This approach is a clever one as not only does it lend itself to suspense, but also constant emotional heft as the finality of Zain’s actions are always known to us.
At the centre of Capernaum is a truly brilliant performance from Zain Al Rafeea who plays Zain with an emotional maturity many adult actors fail to grasp. He traverses the streets of Beirut selling drinks while working for his parents’ landlord, seemingly keeping the family afloat. He swears at adults and works hard; he is the antithesis of most child characters envisioned on the big screen. More impressive however is Al Rafeea’s ability to play the character with a face that looks downtrodden and believably distraught.
Amidst all the gruelling insights into poverty, which are essential viewing to anyone, there are comedic moments interspersed throughout Capernaum too. Of particular note is a scene where Zain speaks to an elderly man dressed as Spider-Man where the old man claims instead to be the famous superheroes’ cousin, cockroach-man.
Following a series of dramatic events, Zain finds himself hanging around with a young Ethiopian woman named Rahil and her baby Yonas. The relationship between Zain and Yonas is beautiful to watch, sometimes verging on heart-breaking. Amazingly, Yonas manages to maintain the humorous side of the film and perhaps even represents one of the most moving depictions of a baby ever put to screen.
Laughs are crucial in Capernaum as often chaos prevails, dimming the mood considerably. But with a topic so serious, this is understandable and resonates to beautiful effect, particularly in one sequence where Zain walks through an empty amusement park. The allure of childhood fun is almost tangible yet he can never penetrate that world, forced instead to scrap for food and money.
Zain is street smart; he has not been to school but still holds a level of intelligence which ensures his survival on the streets of Beirut. Amidst the chaos, it seems that Zain, while distraught, has the capability to push through.
Capernaum is emotional, funny and heart-breaking. It is truly essential viewing and is like nothing else. The soundtrack is hauntingly beautiful and will ensure that Capernaum will stick with you, long after the credits roll.