Capernaum (2018)

“What do you want from your parents?”

So real and so organic that it could be mistakenly classified as belonging to the Cinéma vérité style of documentary filmmaking, Capernaum tells a painful yet uplifting story about the fragility and the strength of the human condition. In this film, life’s many inequities and cruelties serve as the antagonistic force, and only through dogged perseverance can a little boy fight for the kind of life that he rightfully believes he deserves to live. The kind he imagines when he closes his eyes and lays his head to rest. Capernaum translates from Arabic to English as “chaos,” and the picture articulates its tumult through a clear, singular voice.

Zain (Zain Al Rafeea, a remarkably talented and effusive newcomer reliving the memories of his own past), confronts his parents in Lebanon’s courts. He accuses them of giving him life, of bringing him into an existence he has no interest in enduring. This is the open, from which the film then retraces the genesis of this extreme stance formed by a mature, young, resourceful child. It’s not all doom and gloom either. While Zain’s uneducated in school and illiterate, the boy exudes the street smarts of a grown adult, showing that he seems to have been born wise beyond his years. Even after events take a turn following the forced marriage of his dear sister, Zain’s willing and early test flight from the nest – while harrowing and dramatic – doesn’t feel impossible. We believe in his runaway pursuit of happiness.

Along the way he encounters the single mother Rahil (Yordanos Shireraw), comes to play surrogate parent since she doesn’t have the proper papers, and the movie beautifully captures some emotionally stirring, politically resonant images in the process. In fact, Zain meets her during such a moment. She’s a cleaner looking out at a local amusement park, watching Zain bask on the standstill rides, perhaps imagining himself having fun in an alternate life properly set in motion. In these many insignificant yet instrumental moments, Capernaum explores the unique existential crisis of the impoverished and the ruminations of the hearts and the souls aimlessly wandering about in the global refugee crisis. This film gives them a face and a voice, and unsurprisingly, they look and sound hardly different from you or me or anyone we know. Capernaum’s emotional resonance doesn’t depend on understanding a single spoken language, but relies on accurately conveying universal, primal responses: fear, hope, sadness, joy.

There’s something a little bit off with the script here though, as the few court room scenes essentially bookend the film and impart too little characterization. And that’s not a gravely serious detriment either, because Capernaum hardly spends any time in these spaces, which I’d argue is for good reason. The more interesting storylines exist out in the streets. Out there, led by Zain Al Rafeea’s truly empathetic performance, Khaled Mouzanar’s memorable score, and the assured, awards worthy direction by Nadine Labaki – whose skillful work guiding children and refining a picture so massive in scope down to a true distillation of the promise for another tomorrow – everything coalesces into a picture worth recommending and heralding. Capernaum breaks your heart before it carefully sews it back together, scarring us with an ending that’s amongst the most unexpectedly optimistic of anything to come from 2018, as well as leaving us with one of the more unforgettable, infectious final images I’ve seen in years. Simply put, the movie stays with you.

“I need proof you’re a human being.”

Rating: 4 out of 5

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