“Smile, Zain. This is for your ID card, not your death certificate”Review by Lily Taylor
Nadine Labaki directs this Lebanese drama set in Beirut following the life of 12 year old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea). The film opens on a court scene in which Zain is attempting to sue his parents for giving him life, while he serves a five year prison sentence for stabbing a ‘son of a bitch’- personally I think he was fully justified! We then cut to a scene of immigration officers processing migrant worker, including Ethiopian born Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw).
Flash back in time and we learn that Zain lives in the slums with his family, working part time at a store owned by a total swine named Assaad (Nour El Husseini) and spending the rest of his time crushing up Tramadol for his mother to sell to inmates at the local prison. He is particularly close to his sister Sahar (Haita Izzam) and runs away from home when his parents marry her off to shopkeeper Assaad.
Zain finds himself at an amusement park where his story becomes intertwined with immigrant worker, Rahil and her son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Banko). Rahil takes Zain under her wing and he looks after Yonas while she works.
Nothing goes quite to plan for Rahil, Zain or his family and the challenges they face in the slums of Beirut eventually lead to the pair being reunited in prison, just before Zain takes on his parents in the courtroom. Many events transpire in the interim but you have to watch it to understand the gravity of the characters situation. The story is heartbreaking and is only made bearable by the smattering or humour that Labaki expertly weaves through the script.
‘Capernaum’ often feels like you’re watching a documentary and I don’t think that is in any way accidental. The portrayal of life as a paperless individual in Beirut is so closely based on the truth that at times I forgot it was fictional. Zain Al Rafeea, our main character, is in fact a refugee himself and the role of his mother was inspired by a woman that Nadine Labaki really knew who lived in the slums and had sixteen children, six of which had died. Al Rafeea’s performance is phenomenal, he has mastered a character that is forced by his environment to be older than his years. He cares for his sister and Yonas and carries himself like the man of the house. His spectrum of emotion is what makes the film, at times it’s painfully raw and at others, it’s lightened by dark comedy. The realness of ‘Capernaum’ is a credit to Labaki’s research and first hand experience.
The idea that a child would sue his parents because he and his siblings had suffered so greatly in life is a powerful one but it’s not the most realistic of concepts. This was one of the few faults I could find with ‘Capernaum’ and I didn’t even notice it until several hours after the film had finished because I was so swept up in the sentiment. I also felt that the film was a little bit unpolished but capernaum literally means chaos so I really should have been expecting that. I think this film is an important and educational watch but be prepared to have your heartstrings tugged.