In a courtroom in Beirut, 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is suing his parents for the “crime” of having given birth to him. Is this the petulant, puerile payback of a vindictive child? We’re already wondering just what terrible offense this kid could have committed that has landed him in prison for five years before he’s even reached his teens. Is the lawsuit a trick to get out of prison for day trips to court? A way to torment his parents? What kind of sociopath is Zain, anyway?
Capernaum — translation: chaos — is not about the court case, but is instead a long series of flashbacks showing us what has led Zain to this moment. And it’s nothing like we might have been expecting. Writer (with Jihad Hojeily and Michelle Keserwany) and director Nadine Labaki gives us perhaps the most harrowing and heartbreaking movie of 2018 with Zain’s story, one that is downright dystopian even as it reflects harsh realities of the world we live in right now.
For Zain’s is an existence in which children are nothing more than commodities: sons workhorses to support their parents, daughters — like Zain’s sister, Sahar (Haita Izzam) — burdens to be dispensed with as soon as possible. Poverty and culture intersect to create predatory men everywhere, ready and eager to latch onto a child who may be financially profitable or sexually useful. This is a nightmare world, and yet this fictional narrative could almost be a documentary: Labaki’s cast is made up of nonprofessional actors playing roles not too different from their actual lives.
We slowly learn all this by seeing through Zain’s eyes the utter neglect he is subjected to at the hands of his parents and of his society at large. (He doesn’t attend school, and no adults seem to care or even notice.) The wonder of his life and his resilience is that, far from being the sociopath we might have initially taken him for, he maintains a resourcefulness and, far more profoundly, a decency as his defense in the face of abandonment and despair. He runs away from home, eventually falling in with migrant Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), finding affection and protection from an adult for perhaps the first time in his life; the tiny bit of thawing we see in his sullen emotional withdrawal with her is brutal for what is says about how forsaken he has been, when what cracks through it is what we might consider the barest minimum of positive human interaction. In return, Zain becomes powerfully protective of Rahil’s toddler son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, who is actually a girl). Rahil’s life as an undocumented immigrant, we have seen, is as fraught with impossible dilemmas as Zain’s is, and how they come to stick together offers an intense contrast to the everyone-for-themselves attitude among Zain’s own family. In fact, it is when Zain comes to the aid of his sister Sahar that things start to go very badly wrong for him…
Zain is surely one of the most memorable child protagonists in absolutely ages, and through his point of view, which is a far more intimate child’s perspective than cinema usually gives us, Capernaum slyly asks us adults to consider what we owe children. Not our own children, though of course that’s part of it, but the world’s children, all of them. That’s hardly ever a question that movies about kids ask of us. And it’s a question that giving any thought at all to — when we know in what terrible conditions so many children, from down the street to around the planet, live in — can lead us into a spiral of hopelessness. For the problem seems too large and too intractable to even begin to deal with. Capernaum does not alter that wretched outlook one tiny bit, which makes this a very tough watch, but essential one nevertheless.
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