Nadine Labaki's Capernaum is the kind of film that has Academy Award written all over it, so thoroughly engaging and absorbing is the film from the Lebanese director and actress. Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival along with a slew of other fest prizes along its festival journey, the film also recently picked up a nomination in the British Independent Film Awards for Best International Independent Film and is picking up Oscar buzz.
Cast entirely with first-time actors, Capernaum centers almost entirely around 12-year-old Zain Al Rafeea, whose performance as Zain is astonishing in its depth and humanity and authenticity. It's a performance that says volumes about Labaki's strength as a filmmaker, her ability to produce such a transparent performance from Rafeea a remarkable achievement that also helps the entire film avoid the usual over-sentimentality of such child-centered films.
Capernaum opens with a scene that could easily ring false, but never does. Young Zain, now a young boy convicted of stabbing someone, is suing his parents, played convincingly by Kawsar Al Haddad and Fadi Yousef, for the crime of having given him life. It's a remarkable statement, though not one that ever plays as melodramatically as it could have played. Rather than melodrama, Zain's scenario is one borne out of a patriarchal societal system reflecting social and economic inequity. It is people like Zain, born into a family with so many children one is never quite sure how many children are present, who are ultimately left behind.
The film's early scenes, viewed as flashbacks that help explain how Zain has arrived to the point of suing his parents, serve to set the stage for the chaos in which Zain grew up. Seen via both broad and remarkably precise brush strokes, these scenes help to paint the picture of a young boy who is already largely responsible for his family's survival whether helping his parents sell drugs into the local prison or street hustling or doing a wide variety of odd jobs. Yet what is remarkable here is Rafeea's ability to convincingly portray both the grittiness of existence and the tenderness within his childlike soul. Zain shares a genuine affection for his sister, Sahar (Cedra Izzam), with several of the film's early scenes indicating that in many ways they survive their existence because of one another. It becomes apparent, however, that Zain's parents only view Sahar as their next meal ticket and scenes in which she is sold into marriage to a local grocer are nothing shy of heartbreaking.
Eventually, as one might expect, Zain will leave his family dwelling for an even less certain future on the run. He will encounter Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian refugee in hiding herself with a 1-year-old baby (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) who is undocumented and must remain hidden while Rahil seeks to obtain falsified papers through the seemingly ill-fated involvement of her not to be trusted landlord (Alaa Chouchniye). Of course, nothing will go as we hope.
There will be some who will consider Capernaum to be a tad on the manipulative side, but Labaki constructs such an honest and involving story that a good majority of the film never feels manipulative. When it does feel manipulative, it also feels like it's a hard-earned manipulation that works to the benefit of the story and its characters. By the time the film returns to the courtroom of the film's opening scene, Capernaum has become ingrained within us just as the bibical city of Capernaum was both cursed by Jesus yet held out faint hope of restoration.
One of the best of the foreign language films for 2018, Capernaum seems almost assured to be intensely recognized come awards season - if not by the Academy, at least by Film Independent.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic