“Capernaum” means chaos, a word taken from the name of a village doomed by Jesus. It’s a fitting title for this Cannes film festival Grand Jury Prize winner, a twisted coming-of-age story of Zain, near enough 12 years old (but unregistered, so who knows?), struggling for survival and identity on the streets of Lebanon.
I say “coming of age”, but Zain is already old before his years, a streetwise firebrand raging at life, refusing to back down from any injustice that befalls him. It's the adults who need to listen and learn. Zain al-Rafeea gives a fiery, witty and deft performance. He demands and rewards your attention from the first scene to the very last with a charisma that might remind you of a younger River Phoenix or even James Dean. That’s hyperbole, I know, but I can get away with it because like a handful of likewise special performances by kids, such as Subir Bannerjee (Apu), becoming the equivalent talented adult depends on infinite unlikely factors. Right now, al-Rafeea is pure barely-contained energy and he powers the film.
Zain is director Nadine Labaki’s (Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?) first magic trick in a film full of wonder and pain and it is on him that the film rests almost entirely, though the rest of the cast are all superb. You wouldn't know that none of them were professional. Capernaum is at least part Realism, akin to Bicycle Thieves; the locations and the cast lack contrivance and are all too real. The central conceit may seem at odds with the otherwise vérité style: told somewhat in flashback from a courtroom, Zain has been sentenced to five-years imprisonment and considers his life such a waste, he is suing his parents for him being born.
Such an unlikely premise could be eccentric; and through the eyes of such young children who apparently lack agency, even a sentimental cheat, but in Labaki's confident hands it is instead a powerful rallying cry within a dark fairy tale. And the situation in which the children find themselves is no less absurd than the telling of it could ever be. This Les Lebanon Misérables, this story of children, is real. The film allows itself impossible moments borne from Zain's impossible request so it can burrow under your skin all the more.
Almost every tragic beat could be a plot in itself. Zain helping his younger sister Sahar (Haita 'Cedra' Izzam) hide her first period otherwise she'll be married off; scoring Tramadol from chemists so his family can wash it into clothes for shots to be sold by their many relatives in prison; trying to persuade his parents to let them go to school but that means not working for the local thug. This is just the first act.
Soon, Zain escapes and becomes an unlikely babysitter to a young Ethiopian mother, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw). The story takes a more positive turn, if just as desperate, and there is relief in the tone shift because Zain is welcomed and a family unit forms. The return to chaos is inescapable, but baby Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) is an absolute star and the scenes with him (in actuality a girl) and Zain will make you begin, even while the film threatens to break your heart.
The scenes with Zain and Yonas recall Grave of the Fireflies; devastating though that film is, there was an obvious reason for their horrendous situation. A villain, so to speak, from which escape could be possible at least through history, despite an existential cost. Untold numbers of films feature the Nazis, The Lives of Others, the Stazi. The Breadwinner too had the Taliban. 12 Years a Slave had an inherent knowledge this too will end, regardless of the characters' dreadful fates. Capernaum doesn't even have that. Again, like Bicycle Thieves, there's an odd routine to this chaos. It's accepted as normal. Contrarily perhaps, the stern judge is no pantomime villain either. Good and bad is complicated.
The balance is complicated too, but Labaki has a remarkable grasp of the shifting tones. There are sparks of wit, deadpan humour and levity (pink Spider-Man is a bizarre standout!) and even contradictory moments of profound beauty. A scene on a Ferris wheel creates a sublime metaphor rare in other films of this ilk, a moment of cinematic peace with the ambition of Akira Kurosawa's Ikuru. Zain's journey, his anger, his basic human right to exist is subtly emphasised and justified.
This powerful, emotional and urgent film is tough, but rewarding and essential. There is even catharsis. Watch it, appreciate it, and take a moment to hug those you love. Blimey, it's good to know the movies still have this power.
Find out more at capernaum.film
Capernaum is released on the 29th July 2019 on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital
Dir: Nadine Labaki | Cast: Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawsar Al Haddad, Yordanos Shiferaw, Zain Al Rafeea | Writers: Georges Khabbaz (in collaboration with), Jihad Hojeily (screenplay), Khaled Mouzanar (in collaboration with), Michelle Keserwany (screenplay), Nadine Labaki (screenplay)