Starring Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawthar A; Haddad, Fadi Kamel Youssef, Nour el Husseini, Alaa Chouchnieh. Directed by Nadine Labaki. (2018/123 min).
ON BLU-RAY FROM SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
Review by Fluffy the Fearless🙀
Sometimes it seems like the worst parents are the ones who end up having the most kids.
Take Souad & Selim El Hahi, for example, living in a tiny, squalid slum they share with at-least six kids, none of whom even have birth certificates. Neither parent appears to work. While Dad mostly sleeps on the couch, Mom regularly sends 12-year-old Zain to various pharmacies with phony prescriptions to get drugs the family sells to street junkies. Zain also works at a nearby market for Assad, who owns their apartment and lets them live rent free because he has his eye on Zain’s 11-year-old sister, Sahar, who Mom & Dad eventually offer as a wife, apparently so they can remain in the building. Worst of all, despite being neglectful, irresponsible, abusive and indifferent to their kids’ suffering, Souad & Selim keep having babies.
The viewer doesn’t learn all of this right away. At the beginning of Capernaum, Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is serving five years in a juvenile prison for stabbing a man. He’s also suing his parents for giving birth to him. Zain’s story leading up to that point comprises the bulk of the narrative, told in flashback. Streetwise and resourceful, he’s the only member of the family with a sense of anything resembling responsibility. Since Zain is the family’s main source of income, his parents refuse to let him attend school. He’s also the only person who seems to care about Sahar and is fiercely protective of her, especially around Assad. Eventually, he’s had enough and plans to escape the nightmare with Sahar. Unfortunately, his parents sell her to Assad before he gets the chance.
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Zain runs away and tries to make it on his own, but can’t find legitimate work. Then he meets Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an ex-prostitute and illegal immigrant with a false ID that allows her to work. She also has a one-year-old son, Yonas, that she’s barely able to take care of herself and forced to hide for fear of calling attention to herself. But unlike Zain’s own family, Rahil is a loving mother, willing to do anything to keep Yonas safe, which includes having Zain babysit him while she’s away at work. Eventually, however, she does not return. Now Zain must rely on his own resourcefulness to not only care for Yonas, but keep him out of the hands of Aspro, an ID forger who's also a human trafficker. It’s at this point that Capernaum grows really heartbreaking.
To call the film bleak is an understatement. Though extremely compelling, Capernaum consists of one emotional gut-punch after another, made all-the-more harrowing by its setting and characters, both of which look and feel distressingly real. Beirut, as depicted by writer-director Nadine Labaki, might arguably be the worst place on Earth to raise a family that isn’t a war zone. As a product of his environment, Zain almost immediately earns our empathy. Though he isn’t always likable, the love and responsibility he feels for his sister – and later, Yonas – drives the narrative. Capernaum also features some of the most hateful antagonists I’ve seen in a long time, and not just his despicably narcissistic parents. By the time we learn who Zain stabbed and why, not only do we understand his rationale, we’re as enraged as he is.
But believe it or not, the film does come to a wonderfully satisfying conclusion that justifies running the viewer through an emotional wringer. Whether or not Zain’s story is worth enduring more than once is another matter. After all, this is over two hours of misery inflicted mostly on children. Either way, Capernaum is a film that’s difficult to forget.
Q&A WITH DIRECTOR NADINE LABAKI AND ACTOR ZAIN AL RAFEEA
AUDIO COMMENTARY – With Director Nadine Labaki
PURR-R-R. LIKE A GOOD SCRATCH BEHIND THE EARS