Starring: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluuwatife Treasure Bankole
Capernaum is currently nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
When news headlines keep facilitating a general consensus of hopelessness, often we turn to the silver screen to find something more entertaining – maybe an imagined reality that shows a life that offers a bit more light.
So how do you sell a foreign-language film that exposes the pressing truths of poverty, human trafficking and child marriage in Lebanon? This question is one that Nadine Labaki has clearly found a successful answer to with her third feature, Capernaum, which has been heavy on everyone’s hearts since its rapturous premiere at the 71st Cannes Film Festival.
Instead of fabricating a world to escape to, Labaki immersed herself in the reality she knows all too well, and opens up the world to a wider audience. The film is bookended by a courtroom trial, but centres around the struggle of a childhood lived on the streets. These growing pains are felt by Zain – the name of both the onscreen protagonist and the young boy who plays him. Al Rafeea was street-cast, and has lived a life not so far from the one of the fictional boy he plays.
Zain al Rafeea in Capernaum
The film rests entirely on the young boy’s shoulders, as the story is told through the repeated hardships he faces. After a heart-rupturing separation with his sister Sahar, Zain leaves home and finds refuge with Rahil and her infant son, Yonas. His journey is absorbing, both due to the near-unbelievable circumstances he survives, and in the way the actor performs with wisdom far beyond his years.
It’s a wisdom that suggests both awareness and caution, while still harnessing a certain audacity that feels so specific to a rebellious child. This gives the film an accessible core, both empathetic and challenging in turn. His relationship with Yonas taps into a selfless generosity that seems at odds with the world he lives in, making the strength of both 'actors' even more fascinating.
Labaki builds a narrative with sky-high dramatic style, by emphasising the seriousness of circumstance in the design of her film that steers clear of a documentary-style lack of emotion. In moments of quiet, lachrymose music narrates the film (composed by Khaled Mouzanar, Labaki’s husband, who also produced the film) and attention is drawn to the physical pain of the people in this story. No one cries excessively, least of all the children, which means that the impact is all the more upsetting when it happens.
The lives that Labaki portrays are too often treated as scrolling buzzwords in faceless news reports, but they receive a sweepingly sensitive treatment here. The anchor of a courtroom as a somewhat formulaic device detracts from the film’s transcendent originality. But by making the film more accessible, its influence increases – making its societal impact more valuable than ever.
22 Feb 19 – 22 Feb 20, TIMES VARY
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