Set in the rough streets of Beirut, Nadine Labaki has written and directed a marvellous film dealing with all the grim realities of child poverty and neglect. This is punctuated by the opening scene introducing us to 12-year old Zain as he sues his parents for giving him life and failing to give him a childhood. From there the film steps back to show us how Zain has arrived at this point. The drama unfolds slowly but naturally, unapologetically tackling issues such as child brides, poverty, abuse, homelessness and education to name a few – Capernaum is uncomfortable but necessary viewing.
Zain is portrayed by Zain Al Rafeea, a real-life Syrian refugee, delivering a sincere and visceral performance of lost childhood. Zain really is a child forced to grow up too soon, taking on responsibilities that he shouldn’t have to face in any fair world. Responsible for working at the local shop and looking after his sisters, the sinewy boy is visibly underfed and overworked. Supporting himself on uncooked packs of noodles, and in one scene ice cubes coated in sugar. When the option to go to a school comes up his father is aghast at the implication that an education is useful. Meanwhile his mother has set up a method of delivering drugs into prison using Zain to get prescription medication on a forged note.
Eventually Zain becomes too angry and tired with his parents’ constant lack of care and runs away from home, where he meets the amusing cockroach-man, jokingly a relation to spider-man; one of the films’ rare moments of levity. Zain is eventually taken in by Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal immigrant and single mother from Ethiopia working several jobs at a time. It is rare to see a sympathetic portrayal of immigrant life, Rahil is torn between raising her son, sending money home to her family and trying to reconnect with the man she fell in love with in Lebanon.
The story of Rahil and Zain cross over several social issues; while the loud busy streets of Beirut are dissimilar from our own, Labaki crafts a story based on childhood innocence and the injustices that could be faced by anyone. As the film reaches its climax where Zain confronts his parents in a court room, the question hangs in the air of what a life is worth and what it takes to nurture it. It is not explicitly a story advocating abortion, but it definitely is about parental responsibility.
The actors deft use of their own experiences (some of whom are actually from the slums they film in), brings the film to life, making the story incredibly realistic. Capernaum is a tragic story of childhood and how easy it is to neglect the most innocent in trying times.
Capernaum is set for release in 2019.
Words by Sunny Ramgolam @SunnyRamgolam.
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