A powerfully compelling, hard-hitting & thought-provoking portrait of poverty, neglect, child abuse & desperation that also reflects on the current refugee crisis, Capernaum (also known as Capharnaüm) is an endlessly gripping, thoroughly captivating & emotionally engrossing Lebanese drama that’s sincere in its approach, compassionate in its treatment & downright effective in its execution. An unforgettable & heartbreaking slice of social-realism that’s bolstered by arguably the most memorable performance of 2018, this harrowing cinema is one of last year’s finest offerings.
Capernaum tells the story of Zain; a 12-year old boy from the slums of Beirut, Lebanon who is summoned before a court while already serving a 5-year prison sentence for a past crime after he decides to take civil action against his own parents. Narrated in flashbacks, the film takes us on a journey through his life, from his scrambling for survival on the streets to the crime he is imprisoned for, in addition to the event that compels him to sue his parents for bringing him into an unjust world where being a refugee without any documents means that their rights can easily be denied.
Co-written & directed by Nadine Labaki, despite featuring a fictional storyline, many of the hardships depicted in this film are lifted directly from real-life incidents that Labaki encountered during her research in the field. And she weaves them all together into one carefully structured & finely layered narrative that never loses its sight & focus of what it’s about and where it’s headed. Also, by employing novice actors in primary roles and abstracting genuine emotions from them by drawing on their experiences, the director succeeds in achieving the documentary-like realism she was aiming for.
The non-linear arrangement of the storyline piques our interest from the moment we see a small kid being brought to the court in handcuffs and after he reveals why he wants to sue his parents, the film goes back to pave the groundwork and work on his background to shed light on the bigger picture. Zain is not the only character the story focuses on but Labaki makes sure to not stall the narrative, and keeps all subplots moving towards the same destination. Though the never-ending predicaments make it a depressing sit for the most part, the first-rate acting & proper handling of emotions keep the interest alive until the end.
Illustrating the shantytowns of Beirut & the harsh life that dwells there in a wonderfully detailed & authentic fashion, the images have a raw, gritty feel to them however they are arresting at the same time, not to mention that the handheld camerawork is executed so well that it provides a sense of closeness & immediacy to the unfolding drama. Editing is expertly carried out too, steadily pacing the plot while keeping the narrative flow smooth & streamlined. But the film isn’t without its misgivings and in case one isn’t already invested in Zain’s life from the start, the premise may seem somewhat manipulative to them.
Regardless of that, there is absolutely no denying that the film is an acting powerhouse despite featuring mostly novice actors in the main roles. Leading from the front is Zain Al Rafeea who plays our young protagonist with such precise control over his emotions that he is nothing short of a revelation here and his performance is as breathtaking as it is flawless, striking an emotional chord that resonates strongly with the viewers. Others are no slouch in their given roles either and they all contribute with outstanding inputs, most notably Yordanos Shiferaw who plays an undocumented immigrant and even her toddler manages to steal few moments.
On an overall scale, Capernaum is an intelligently crafted, expertly narrated & strongly acted drama that’s realised on the film canvas with care, consideration & collectedness. Brilliantly directed & deftly scripted, Nadine Labaki’s latest argues that adults who are incapable of raising kids responsibly shouldn’t have one in the first place, for it is these children who always end up bearing the maximum brunt, pay a heavy price for things they never actually had any say in, and are robbed of the childhood they deserve. Capernaum was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the just concluded Academy Awards and I found it way better & stronger than the other nominees. Highly recommended.