Capernaum: why you need to watch this devastating and relentless film

Posted by for Life

After running away from his negligent parents, committing a violent crime and being sentenced to five years in jail, a hardened, streetwise 12-year-old Lebanese boy Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) sues his parents in protest of the life they have given him.

Jesus performed many of his miracles in the ancient town of Capernaum, while the word itself has also come to signify a “confused jumble”. In etymological terms, then, Capernaum serves as an apt title for Nadine Labaki’s Oscar-nominated, social-realist drama; showcasing the miraculous strength of character and survival possible, even within the most unholy, cruel and broken factions of society.

Our protagonist is 12-year-old Zain (Al Rafeea) – sharp and swift and struggling through life in Beirut amidst deprivation and parental abuse. The majority of the narrative is a series of flashbacks: Zain, who has been imprisoned for stabbing a “son of a bitch”, is in court, having decided to sue his parents “for being born”.

The court case is a clever framing device, giving Labaki the chance to delve into the horrors of Zain’s life. And she does this by cleverly keeping the camera at our protagonist’s eye-level, so that she can masterfully immerse us into the corrupt world he is forced to negotiate on a daily basis. He impresses with his streetwise survival skills, plethora of shortcuts and extended vocabulary of curse words. And, when he takes it upon himself to care for Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), the young son of Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an African refugee working illegally in the country, we see him get incredibly inventive with his methods. He even – in scenes which are sometimes difficult to watch – pops the toddler into a large cooking pot, attaches it to his skateboard, and tows it along behind him whenever he needs to get around.

There is no denying, though, that the film – which clocks in at a staggering two and a half hours – is relentless, hammering home its central message. We learn of ever-more awful details during the courtroom scenes, all of which leave the viewer feeling emotionally battered. Zain’s mother Souad (Kawthar al Haddad) and father Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef), meanwhile, are brutally honest about their choices and their neglect of their children. In doing so, they serve as a disturbing reminder of the detachment and desperation that ensues when parents stop loving their children and start using them for benefit. 

Labaki is all too aware of the fact that her film is a tough slog. As such, she offers us light relief in the form of a character who dresses up as Spider-Man and, above all else, Zain’s tenderness. As such, our young hero is trusted and respected not just by Rahil and Yonas, but by the audience too; it is he who serves as the moral compass through which Labaki both protests and endears.

What’s especially remarkable is that most of the cast has no acting experience. It is their extraordinary performances, though, that help to make Capernaum such an important and necessary watch. No wonder it has been nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars: its powerful message should serve as a much needed wake-up call to those of us comfortably complacent in the Western world.

Image: Rex Features

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Kemi J Williams

Kemi J Williams is a film critic for Stylist magazine. She thrives on analysing all things on screen from cult classics to daring dystopias. Ardent about empowering girls and women, she can also be found teaching secondary English while juggling the joys and challenges of motherhood. You can catch her latest musings on Twitter and Instagram @KemiJWilliams.

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