Abandoned children struggling to survive in Dickensian poverty is a guaranteed heart-string tugger. Capernaum tugs them in extremely powerful and poignant fashion, albeit with a premise that I initially considered outlandish.
Said premise involves a boy called Zain (an absolutely brilliant Zain Al Rafeea) deciding to sue his parents for bringing him into the world when they couldn’t properly look after him. Zain has ended up in a Beirut prison, but flashbacks give context to his story. The first act deals with an appalling arranged marriage involving his beloved eleven year-old sister, and the second with Zain (understandably) running away from his negligent parents. Shortly afterwards, he falls in with equally impoverished illegal immigrant Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) who is struggling to hold down a job and look after her baby. Complications and brushes with the authorities leave Zain looking after said baby in scenes that are harrowing and heart-wrenching, but also shot through with dark humour.
Here Zain Al Rafeea’s central performance really shines. He delivers one of the most brilliant, naturalistic child actor performances I have ever seen. The supporting cast are also excellent. In addition, director Nadine Labaki generates a vivid, atmospheric, dirt-under-the-fingernails sense of time and place that echoes the great social realist films of Ken Loach or even Bicycle Thieves. Zain’s desperate plight is wholly absorbing and almost unbearably moving, particularly in a final shot that is too good to spoil here.
Whilst she has delivered a first-rate film, Labaki also deserves credit for drawing attention to Lebanon’s rampant poverty. She delves into the sadly familiar theme of how said poverty and ignorance become a self-perpetuating tragedy, when authorities look the other way and/or refuse to reform the system. Even the most reprehensible characters in this story are at least partly victims of circumstance, especially when acting out of ignorance because of what they see others doing around them (the man who marries Zain’s sister, for instance).
In short, Capernaum completely deserved it’s nomination for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars. I should probably add a warning for swearing, but this is brilliant stuff; traumatic yet not entirely bereft of hope, and comes highly recommended.