Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is an abrasive, unkempt boy of either 12 or 13 years old. Neither he nor his parents quite know his age for sure. His parents’ neglect is only part of the reason why Zain wants to sue them for bringing him into this world without a care. He hopes to stop them from having any more neglected children like himself or his beloved sister, Sahar (Cedra Izam), who they sold into an early marriage. Yet this is still only the beginning of Zain’s sad story.
Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum” is a brutally honest — sometimes difficult to watch — drama about neglected children. Some, like Zain, are the innocent victims of a bad situation, joining a big family already burdened with an absurdly small income. Others are the victims of circumstance, like when a hardworking, caring Ethiopian migrant, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), is arrested for her expired (and forged) paperwork. She can say nothing of her baby Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) at home, or she risks losing custody of the infant.
Despite his parents’ mistreatments, Zain tries to do the right things for his siblings. He’s especially protective of Sahar and tries to save her from being sold into marriage. When that fails, he runs away from home. He stumbles onto a dusty fairground where one of the workers, Rahil, takes pity on the forlorn-looking boy asking everyone for work. She takes Zain in and asks the boy to look after Yonas while she works.
Unfortunately, as an undocumented migrant vulnerable to extortion, she’s unable to pay the high price to forge her papers and is arrested, leaving the two boys to fend for themselves. So the resourceful Zain does what he’s always done: survive. He figures out how to feed the baby without its mother’s milk, where to find alternative places to shower when they run out of water, how to create a carriage out of a stolen skateboard and pots and how to use what he learned working for his parents’ drug business to earn money. But every step towards survival is met with complications, and Zain’s growing frustration with this unkind world drives him to want to leave the country — potentially without Yonas.
“Capernaum” has garnered much attention for shining a light on the exploitation of children, migrants and refugees. The movie earned a rapturous debut at Cannes, and Lebanon selected the film as its Oscar contender for the foreign language film category. Labaki, whose previous film “Where Do We Go Now?” was also chosen as Lebanon’s Oscar submission in 2012, collaborated with cinematographer Christopher Aoun to look for beauty in this tragedy. They hone in on details like the sunlight brightly streaming into Zain’s messy home or in touching close-ups of Zain playing with Yonas.
Labaki’s film hinges on the heartfelt emotions of a little boy struggling to survive, and she cast Al Rafeea, then a 12-year-old illiterate Syrian refugee, to carry the film’s extraordinary emotional demands. At times, the beatings and arguments in “Capernaum” can look frightful; I worried for the children in the scenes. Recently, the director shared that the boy and his family have resettled in Norway, which was similar to his character’s escape plan to go to Europe.
In the movie, Zain can be defiant, ready to curse or to fight anyone who crosses him or anyone in his care. But he’s not always a raw nerve looking for a brawl. In scenes of quiet desperation, Labaki’s camera focuses on the actor’s eyes and his defeated body posture to get a sense of the internal fight going on in his head. There’s a melancholy tone throughout the film, even in its most innocent moments, like when Zain is playing with Yonas in his crib.
There’s no reprieve from the extreme poverty that fuels Zain’s parents’ abuses or that drives Rahil to risk everything to care for her child. Sadness isn’t just around every corner of this film; it is in the viewer’s face throughout its runtime.
In a handful of drone shots in the movie, Labaki extends her lens beyond the suffering of her characters. As the camera flies up, it loses track of the kids. The shot is now focused on the seemingly endless blocks and rows of rundown homes and crumbling apartments. The children’s suffering is lost in a sea of inescapable hardship. Days after watching the movie, I still have some reservations about how abuse is shown in the film, but it’s hauntingly effective. I haven’t been able to shake those images since.