Zain Al Rafeea in 'Capernaum'. (NuMetro)
Zain Al Rafeea in 'Capernaum'. (NuMetro)


While serving a five-year sentence for a violent crime, thirteen-year-old Zain sues his parents for bringing him into a world that has done nothing but beat him down. During the trial, we flashback to the past few years that led him to such a dire situation.


Capernaum – named after the fishing village in Northern Israel, Kfar Nachum, which, according to the New Testament, played a central role in the trials and tribulations of Jesus Christ – was Lebanon’s entry in the foreign language category at this year’s Academy Awards and though it ultimately lost out to Alfonso Cuoron’s highly acclaimed Roma, it is, frankly, the better film. Of course, by the nature of that particular category, it was up against the best movies the entire world had to offer so the fact that it was even nominated among just five films should tell you something about how good it is.

What it probably doesn’t tell you, though, is how tough it is. Its title should give you a hint, as should its basic plot but it is only the film’s judicious use of sometimes very dark humour that makes what is basically the story of young children living a life of abject poverty, abuse, human trafficking and, perhaps most damningly, neglect, just about tolerable. Unlike so many films that fall squarely into the sub-genre of “misery porn”, though, Capernaum is well worth sitting through – even if only once.

Partly, to be sure, because it is worth being reminded, from time to time, of just how unimaginably awful life so often is for those discarded by society; never more so than for the children who are born, almost en masse, into such a life. More than that, like Schindler's List or 12 Years a Slave before it, it’s simply an incredibly powerful piece of cinema, brimming with humanity, that, in spite of its horrific subject matter and unflinching lack of sentimentality, never feels exploitative.

Director and co-writer (with Jihad Hojeily and Michelle Keserwany), Nadine Labaki, clearly cares deeply about her characters and it is this unfailing sense of empathy that ensures that audiences too are drawn into the film, rather than repulsed by it. This is no small feat. Compare it to the recent Galveston, an expertly made film that all too often just came across as needlessly cruel and sadistic.

Capernaum, by contrast, deals with plenty of cruelty and has moments that literally had my fellow critics and me breaking the sacrosanct Cinema Code of Conduct by verbalising our shock and horror at the latest bombshells coming our way – with a particular revelation towards the end of the film being particularly jaw-dropping – but is, in and of itself, never anything but entirely compassionate.

Labaki gets a lot right as both writer and director but what impresses most is the uncanny and unwavering sense of discretion in how she handles the real-life horrors that are being depicted. Our young hero, Zain (played with impeccable naturalism by Zain Al Rafeea, an utterly untested child-actor who can express more with his eyes than many seasoned actors can with their whole bodies), shares a dingy, unfurnished apartment and a single, ratty mattress with his neglectful parents and more siblings than he – or we – can count and Labaki is unflinching in showing just how untenable such a life is for someone as independently-spirited as Zain but she also never dwells unnecessarily on it.

When Zain leaves home in disgust after his sister is sold off in marriage to the family’s unsavoury landlord entirely against her will, Labaki barely draws attention to the fact that no one seems to notice or care but that only makes the neglect feel all the more tangible. Incredibly, it’s from this point that things become increasingly dire for Zain, even if he momentarily finds a new home with an illegal immigrant and her undocumented toddler, but because the film is told from the point of view of a child, Labaki ensures that the truly horrific stuff is never entirely grasped by Zain, who isn’t just a child but one who knows nothing of a world outside his own miserable existence. This ensures that even though we, the audience, understand exactly how far down the pits of hell depicted in the film truly go, Zain’s relative innocence and naivete both cushions the blow by turning the explicit-implicit and makes it hurt all the more by removing any distance between Zain and us.

Such raw, potent emotions combined with brilliant filmmaking and expert performances from a mostly non-professional group of actors (including Boluwatife Treasure Bankole who is, very literally, no more than a baby) almost entirely nullify the film’s few weaknesses. But only almost. The framing device of a boy suing his parents for bringing him into the world, in particular, feels sadly under-developed. It’s such a fascinating concept that it could do with a film of its own but is relegated to a somewhat contrived plot device in a movie that is otherwise above such things. It also does, it has to be said, drag on a bit because, as it turns out, 2+ hours of suffering can be a bit much at times.

Still, these flaws don’t take much away from just how exceptionally good Capernaum is. It may be difficult to recommend too as an enjoyable night out at the cinema, but if you’re even remotely in the mood for something more challenging, Capernaum is nothing less than a must-see masterpiece that already ranks as one of the year’s very best films.

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