Lebanon’s entry for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film could never have been a more deserving winner. Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum is a searing sledgehammer of a movie which brutally confronts the devastating effects of adult behaviour and mistakes on our most vulnerable citizens.
The basic premise might at first sound like that of an offbeat comedy: twelve year old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) sues his parents for the act of giving birth to him. But, as the flashbacks and ever-developing story unravel, we grow to completely empathise with him, witnessing the hell Zain is made to endure and the deceptive adults who forced him into it.
At the film’s chronological beginning, Zain is helping his parents and sister – Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam) – soak crushed tramadol into clothes and sell them to drug dealers. Their situation seems pretty dire, living in a slum under a shared roof with multiple members, to the point where Zain is unable to quote his own birthday since they misplaced his documentation years ago. Over time Zain grows continuously disgruntled with his aggressive and manipulative parents until he is pushed over the edge by Sahar being married off to a local market owner after her first period. The harrowing moment as a shaky camera follows Zain and Sahar’s cries out to one another as she is driven away from his life forever is just the beginning of one in many scenes where we’re forced to watch helplessly as those already suffering are unforgivingly maligned by the decisions of others.
Make no mistake, real-world issues are constantly at the heart of Labaki’s film. On Zain’s journey he encounters and befriends Syrian refugees, a single mother named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) who grows increasingly desperate as her documents are about to expire and Rahil’s infant son who becomes a bargaining chip for a forger offering to give him up for adoption in exchange for helping Zain and Rahil. His story from a family perspective serves heavily as a microcosm for people who suffer at the hands of unjust wars and morally corrupt decisions. This is also further emphasised by how Zain is played by a real Syrian refugee as opposed to a trained actor, bringing a deeper level of intensity and empathy to such a demanding role.
It would also be important to note that Al Rafeea, has been resettled in Norway amongst the film’s release and is receiving an education. I say this because it’s somewhat telling of the film’s finale; even after such a journey through these unsettling images and harrowingly real stories, Capernaum ends on a symbol of hope and courage. I won’t spoil it, but it is what makes the film truly special. It recognises the reprehensible pain and misery that the most disadvantaged in society are forced to endure, empathising with them and building such an intimate portrait. Its closing message is one of hope for those people and it truly is magnificent.