Poverty and child abuse, crucial issues in today’s world, are the subject of Nadine Labaki’s remarkable and heartbreaking Cannes Jury Prize winner Capernaum, an unusual, shocking, devastatingly poignant film about a boy who fights back. Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a 12-year-old victim of privation and extreme hardship, rebels against his miserable conditions by suing his parents for giving birth to him.
Labaki’s filmmaking is innovative, as she employed non-actors. A risky experiment, the effect is, however, successfully gritty and honest. With emotionally gripping realism, the piece leaves the viewer somewhat traumatised yet enlightened.
The young protagonist is introduced as a prisoner in a jail cell, and in court leading a lawsuit against his mother (Kawthar al Haddad) and father (Fadi Kamel Youssef) for neglect of him and his siblings and for reckless procreation. Civilised and orderly in contrast to Zain’s tumultuous existence, the tribunal with its wise and compassionate judge (Elias Khoury) symbolises an oasis of the rational, sadly far removed from the harsh realities of this child’s universe.
In flashbacks, Zain’s life unfolds: amid squalid surroundings in Lebanon, he escapes from his chaotic home environment via odd jobs and through solidarity with his siblings. Unable to prevent the arranged marriage of his 11-year-old sister Sahar (Cedra Izam) – sold to a much older man – he runs away, hiding in an amusement park, where he meets an African refugee, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), and her young son Jonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), subsequently becoming the toddler’s babysitter while Rahil works and is then arrested as an illegal. Resourceful, the juvenile caretaker pulls the little one behind him through the streets in a makeshift carriage of a skateboard and cauldron. A world of cruel materialism is tempered with humanity and humour, and Zain himself embodies decency despite his streetwise toughness.
Superbly directed, the film is made vivid by the magnificent non-professional performers. As the charismatic central character, Al Rafeea has a natural star power that carries the movie. A Syrian refugee, though untrained he is the ultimate method actor, imbuing the role with his own life experience, lending a palpable stirring authenticity. Camera work is evocative with intensely moving close-ups of Zain, especially his eyes, and striking wide shots of crumbling cityscapes.
Not quite a documentary, not quite fiction, Capernaum is indefinable like conceptual art, yet is clearly a cry of rebellion, lovingly conceived but with sublime revolutionary defiance.
Capernaum is released in select cinemas on 22nd February 2019.
Watch the trailer for Capernaum here: