Depicting the poverty of 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) in the Beirut slums, Capernaum’s most noticeable feature is how Zain’s environment suffers from an overflow of things. The general chaos (from which Capernaum takes its meaning) is captured by director Nadine Labaki’s intimate and shaky camera, from floors which are littered with waste, to streets packed with loud cars, bustling to speed by the young protagonist. Asked how many siblings he has, Zain curtly replies “a lot.” This hectic setting leads his abusive parents to marry off their 11-year-old daughter Sahar (Cedar Izam), which for Zain is the final straw, making him run away from home, in order to create his own space.
Zain’s quest for sanctuary is harrowing, if slightly overemphasised, which Al Rafeea grounds with remarkable authenticity and an uncanny physicality. Despite his obvious youth, Zain already has an old soul, his spectacularly wide eyes bagged with fatigued, and his face is fixed with a permanent scowl. His unrelenting (if justified) anger could be tiring, if not for the relationship he finds with Ethiopian refugee Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). These two provide Capernaum with much-needed warmth and vitality, sheltering Zain from his life’s oppressive gloom. Rahil’s character is so heartfelt and interesting that she slightly overtakes the film, brightening it by her presence, but burdening it with her absence.
This is tied to the film’s wider issues, as the significant story and incredible performances are underserved by uneven pacing and a frustrating structure. Zain’s story is irregularly interrupted with a courtroom frame-narration, which hinders the film’s beginning, and jumbles the rest by switching from social-realistic observance, to artificial and didactic commentary. Although these courtroom scenes create the major issues, the central story also has problems. The relentless misery is uncomfortable, but also feels pointless, it being unclear if there’s any grander statement to the story than impoverished exploitation.
Additionally, while more a condemnation of the world than the film, Capernaum’s subject feels depressingly familiar. Whether it be City of God (2002) or Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The Florida Project (2017) or this year’s Shoplifters, Capernaum joins the unfortunate category of ‘child-poverty-films.’ and while perhaps an unfair comparison, the film lacks the warmth and intrigue of its fellow Best Foreign Picture nominees. But while Capernaum is too muddled to be fully effective, the performances and certain moments are gems that should not be overlooked, despite the clutter that surrounds them.
Image: Georges Biard via Wikimedia Commons.