Starring: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Bankole
Director: Nadine Labaki
Running Time: 126 mins
Capernaum (کفرناحوم) is a Lebanese film about a 12 year old boy who sues his parents for neglect, after running away from home.
While it doesn’t quite its heights of emotional power and drama straight away, there’s no denying the intrigue and emotion that Capernaum brings to the table, as a sobering account of the realities of children suffering in poverty, complete with a powerhouse lead performance from the young Zain Al Rafeea, and intimate and engrossing directing throughout from Nadine Labaki.
The plight of children in poverty is a topic that receives much attention on film, but it’s films like Capernaum that really bring the realities home. Taking you further and deeper into the life of a young boy who tries desperately to make something of his life despite being part of a struggling family, the film offers up a deeply personal and intimate story that hits home far harder than any wider-focused drama ever could.
So, while the film proves a powerful representation of a devastating reality, director Nadine Labaki gives this story its own voice too, something that allows you to engross yourself and connect so much more with the characters on screen, combining the gritty portrayal of reality with deeply emotional character development throughout.
The premise follows young Zain as he runs away from home after becoming tired of his parents’ upbringing, and how they treat his siblings. From there, he strikes up an unlikely relationship with a struggling single mother, for whom he takes care of a baby while she works – and that’s where the story really proves most powerful.
While the core premise centres on Zain’s desire to sue his parents for neglect, that’s something that only really develops strong emotional intrigue towards the very end of the film, but over the course of the second and third acts, it’s the struggle to survive as Zain cares for a young baby that offers stunning emotional power.
Not only does that story bring the realities of life in poverty to light, but it also offers up a fascinating story about the difficulties of being an unregistered citizen in a modern-day society, as Zain has no formal identification, and the single mother he helps has no residence permit in Lebanon. It’s a topic that’s covered equally well in the riveting Angels Wear White – if not in even heavier detail in that film – but the way that it’s built on top of the characters’ desperate economic struggles simply adds to the impact of the story.
And it’s that impact that’s also one of Capernaum’s most interesting elements, because while the film is overall a devastating and heavy-going piece, there’s a wonderful glimmer of hope and heartwarming emotion at its centre, which comes through in the lead performance from Zain Al Rafeea.
While he finds himself deeply disillusioned with his parents and society as a whole, the relationship he strikes up with the single mother and then her young child proves deeply moving, and despite all of his hardships, his dedication in looking after that child does bring about a more positive emotional spin on the human side of the story, even if that positivity does make the moments where all really seems lost even more devastating.
Finally, a word on the film’s structure, which is perhaps its biggest weakness throughout, and the reason that I never found myself so entirely captivated by its drama from beginning to end. Initially, we find ourselves in the courtroom where Zain is suing his parents, from which point on the story switches back and forth a couple of times between the court and Zain’s life previously.
In the courtroom, a few revelations are made about what happened beforehand, and while that makes for some intrigue in the first few minutes of each look back to the past, I found it more of a misguided focus that hindered the film’s emotional development early on, as I found myself looking for what led to that eventual revelation, rather than engrossing myself in the very personal story at hand.
Because of that, I found it difficult to really get to grips with Capernaum for the best part of 40 minutes, and while the structure becomes more linear through the second and third acts – eventually giving a good (albeit rather late) payoff for the earlier revelations – its opening act is a weak beginning to a film that really could have been an emotionally enthralling watch at every minute.
Overall, I was impressed with Capernaum, above all thanks to its fantastic emotional drama through its second and third acts, brought about by riveting and intimate directing from Nadine Labaki that brings the hardships of children in poverty to light, while still crafting an enthralling and often heartwarming personal story. It may not have incredible consistency in its delivery from beginning to end, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t end up a very moving and memorable watch, and that’s why I’m giving Capernaum a 7.6.