VERY RARELY DO you find a film that is effectively a piece of advocacy work, so searingly well made and intensely carefully constructed that it surpasses the threshold of actuality and turns into great art. Nadine Labaki’s essay in Amharic (with subtitles) on poverty and disenfranchisement in contemporary Lebanon, entitled Capernaum (which means ‘chaos’) does all these things as it acts as a legible and powerful cipher to issues from child brides to the blindness of religious fundamentalism to the refugee crisis in the Middle East.
But more than all of this, it takes a child, finely proportioned and of devastating beauty who dominates the story with his sense of inherent wisdom. Zain, performed by Zain Al Rafeea, is 12 years old. Or thereabouts. It is the prison doctor who establishes this fact at the outset of the work, by looking at the child’s teeth: as you would assess a horse. And the tale is extrapolated in the present and the past, explaining the horror Zain must confront in order to state his accusation to the presiding judge.
His adventure is a life and death battle of almost biblical proportions which takes him to the outer limits of madness in a context that remains humanly recognisable. In many respects, this work evokes the underlying thread of Günter Grass’s 1959 novel The Tin Drum, where the grownups are so reprehensible in their values and behaviour, their morals and foolishness, that a very young person has to take the reins and attempt to fix the broken things. Like Grass’s character Oskar Mazerath, Zain leaves his family and discovers a circus. It is there that a statue’s stone breasts are presented to a thirst that is unquenchable; there that an elderly ‘Cockroach’ man (Joseph Jimbazian) on a bus offers passing truths. It is also there where a child learns the complicated responsibility of tending to another, more helpless than himself.
It takes a very special understanding of one’s subject matter and one’s medium to be able to render a story with, as its two primary characters, a small boy and a toddler. The baby by the name of Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) is the catalyst for Zain’s development into an adult: one who can condemn his parents; one who can hold on tight to a sister who has begun to menstruate; and one who can kill, if needs be. Other performers slip into the richly textured and implacably coloured background, but something must be said for the magnificent Yordanos Shiferaw as the Ethiopian illegal alien Rahil, who forms a bond with Zain and offers what succour she can, albeit from a position of vast compromise.
Labaki takes you so rapidly into the heart of the improvised living conditions and filth and corruption of the environment, rotten as it is with squatters, informal housing and a souk, that you very quickly forget that you are watching a film. It is as though you are so immersed in this squalor and horror that you will never emerge from it. It is as though you become a child of Zain’s age, thwarted and captured by a prison not of his making.
Similar in its use of an extraordinarily fine small boy to the 2016 Dev Patel film Lion, Capernaum is unrelenting. There is no real western happily ever after, however, and the complexity and texture of the work is completely real. Indeed, not only is it the ‘Zain’ character’s true story, but it is that of millions of people in his situation. It’s a bracing experience, but one you should not avoid. Bring a box of tissues.
- Capernaum is directed by Nadine Labaki and features a cast headed by Abdo Abdo, Kawsar Al Haddad, Iman Al Rafeea, Riman Al Rafeea, Zain Al Rafeea, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Mohamad Chabouri, Samira Chalhoub, Mohamad Chbib, Alaa Chouchnieh, Zakaria Darwich, Nour El Husseini, Asma El Razek, Rahaf El Razek, Fadi Kassem, Abdallah Hajjar, Farah Hasno, Tamer Ibrahim, Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam, Mirna Izzam, Bahia Jaber, Joseph Jimbazian, Farah Kanjo, Fadi Kassem, Elias Khoury, Nadine Labaki, Joe Maalouf, Ghida Majzoub, Tespina George Megalides, Michael Sedad, Yordanos Shiferaw, Alexandre Youakim, Fadi Yousef. It is written by Jihad Hojeily, Michelle Keserwany and Nadine Labaki in collaboration with Georges Khabbaz and Khaled Mouzanar. Produced by Michel Merkt and Khaled Mouzanar, it features creative input by Khaled Mouzanar (music), Christopher Aoun (cinematography), Konstantin Bock and Laure Gardette (editing), Jennifer Haddad (casting) and Hussein Baydoun (production design). Release date, Ster Kinekor, Cinema Nouveau: April 19 2019.