Review: Nadine Labaki’s ‘Capernaum’ Is Intimate And Deeply Moving

Sony Pictures Classics
If you’ve ever walked the streets of Lebanon, specifically in and around Beirut, you’re bound to see children on the streets. Sometimes they’re sitting in the corners, sometimes they’re at car windows trying to sell to strangers, but they’re always alone. And I’d be remiss not to mention the inequality with which migrant workers are treated and the disrespect they are often shown as I’ve seen these things firsthand. Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum takes these exact images and paints a broader picture, expanding on a world many ignore. In a small country packed with its fair share of struggles, Labaki turns her eyes to two characters who come from different backgrounds, but share in their neglect and rejection from society in a powerful film.

Capernaum, derived from Latin and meaning “chaos,” tells the story of Zain (Zain Al Rafeea). He’s 14-years-old–though you wouldn’t be able to tell that based on his malnourished frame–and comes from a home where his parents (Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Yousef) aren’t exactly doing what’s best for him and his siblings, often neglecting them and using them to make money. They live in poverty and struggle to survive, but Zain runs away after his parents essentially sell his sister to someone in exchange for goods. While Zain is street smart, he ultimately has nowhere to go. He finds refuge in the home of Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian migrant who used to be a maid and caretaker in a Lebanese family’s home, only to run away after having her baby (the father, a Lebanese man, refuses to acknowledge her or the child). Zain and Rahil struggle together, each without papers, but things get complicated when authorities get involved and Zain ends up suing his parents for being born.

It’s hard to watch Capernaum and not feel a sense of helplessness, of sadness at the struggle many like Zain and Rahil have to face, and the crippling inability to take swift action. But then again, the film is more of a unique take on a subject that’s suddenly visible in a world pretending it doesn’t exist. There’s a level of sincerity and simultaneous judgement that is carried throughout the film. Director and co-writer Nadine Labaki brings a healthy amount of realism to the film–the actors who play Zain and Rahil are first-timers who actually have, in part, lived the life they portray onscreen and many aspects of the film aren’t necessarily scripted. The movie puts blame on the broken government and unjust legal system for failing its most vulnerable citizens and turning a blind eye on the mistreatment of migrant workers; it also takes a shot at neglectful, unloving parents who abuse their children and treat them more like employees.

There’s a particularly powerful moment when Zain questions the life he was born into and why his parents had him at all if the life he’s living is all there is and when they’ve never bothered to say a single kind word to him. Although he never verbally expresses it, you can tell he cares a great deal and, more often than not, feels like he’s the only one with a conscience in his family. Contrast Zain’s parents with Rahil and, though the standards of living don’t vastly improve upon meeting her, Rahil shows Zain love and care despite her not having enough. She’s fighting even harder in a country that doesn’t see her as anything beyond a servant, but the stark difference in parenting is very clear. Zain and Rahil are easily drawn to each other, both lost behind society’s curtain of invisibility, sidestepping frauds and exploitation at every turn. They come to rely on each other for survival and become their own makeshift family. Their protectiveness of each other and, most especially Zain’s protectiveness of Rahil’s one-year-old son, is the light in an otherwise bleak and disheartening situation.

Nadine Labaki has always had a way in capturing human emotion, focusing on the lives lived in the peripheral vision of society, starting with 2007’s Caramel. Labaki has a distinct way of allowing empathy to seep into every scene, even going so far as to cut back on the courtroom scenes to further showcase Zain and Rahil’s lives. There’s a lot of depth captured in the film, from the never-ending sorrow in Zain’s eyes, to the evocation of fear in Rahil’s. It’s all-consuming and haunting. I’d argue that the film didn’t even need the courtroom scenes, but it’s definitely there to make a point, a statement regarding the neglect.

Capernaum is altogether moving and asks audiences to really look at these characters, whose actors have, to a degree, led the daily lives shown onscreen. It asks us to see them as people and not just statistics and to engage with them on a deeply personal level. Labaki’s direction, paired with the outstanding and moving portrayals by Zain Al Rafeea and Yordanos Shiferaw (their strong performances alone will move you to tears and make it hard to forget them), results in a gut-wrenching, intimate, and empathetic film.
Rating: 4 out 5

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