Capernaum a Trip to Hades You Should Take

Capernaum (2018)
Directed by Nadine Labaki
Sony Pictures Classics, 123 minutes, R (kids in peril)
In Arabic and Amharic (with subtitles)

In the Bible, although Jesus spent much of his ministry in or near Capernaum, he cursed the town and said it would be cast into hell for its lack of faith. Today’s Capernaum is in Israel and the namesake film is set in Lebanon, but Beirut is surely a candidate for a damned city. Once hailed as the “Paris of the Middle East,” Beirut has been a basket case since the 1975 civil war, a cesspool of warring factions.

Capernaum the film isn’t directly about Lebanon’s woes, yet it is. Director Nadine Labaki offers several wide aerial shots of Beirut and what we see is a bleak canvas of concrete, dilapidated apartments, rat maze streets, and roofs secured by cast off tires. When we zoom in to street level, we observe residents fashioning lives marked by improvisation, resignation, desperation, and detached misanthropy. It’s not the sort of place that’s kind to poor families or children. Zain’s family is doubly cursed. His father Selim has the enervated look of a man on the verge of giving up, though he can martial the energy to beat his children and impregnate his wife, Souad. There’s nothing like too many kids, grinding poverty, and domestic violence to make squalor seem even worse. The family survives mainly because their shopkeeper landlord cuts them a break, and that’s only because he wishes to marry their 11-year-old daughter, Sahar.

Capernaum is really Zain’s story. We first meet him in a courtroom, as he has been sentenced to five years in jail for stabbing a man and because Zain is suing his parents. Labaki tells Zain’s story in a non-linear fashion. We learn that Zain’s life was on the streets, where he hawked goods (including Tramadol), shoplifted, and did whatever he needed to survive. Zain (Zain Alrafeea) is probably around 12–he has no birth certificate–but he swears, smokes, and cavorts with the swagger of one twice his age. Zain’s fate is tied to his decision to disappear for a time, a journey that led him to an amusement park where he engaged in defiant acts of mischief, but also met Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an undocumented Ethiopian refugee trying to make ends meet and keep secret from her boss that she has a toddler son, Jonas. Zain soon moves in with Rahil and becomes a surrogate caregiver to Jonas. It is hard not to choke up as we see Zain pulling Jonas around in a cooking pot mounted to a stolen skateboard, or tying Jonas’ ankle to rope so that he won’t venture into danger as Zain hustles his wares du jour.

Some reviewers have compared Zain to Huck Finn. I get the analogy insofar as Zain, like Huck, is adept at fending for himself. But let’s not pull punches. Capernaum is a tough and affecting film, but there’s little of Twain’s humor in the telling. Zain will also meet a young Syrian girl who hopes to immigrate to Sweden. Let that sink in. How bad are things in Ethiopia and Syria if illegal immigrants come from such places to Beirut? If you’ve no stomach for children in peril, steer clear of Capernaum. Ms. Labaki does not try to bathe her film in gauzy sentimentality; hers is more of a fictionalized documentary style that uses blinding Mediterranean light to bring social problems into sharp, unvarnished focus. We get a glimmer of hope in the film’s final moments in which Labaki pays homage to Francois Truffault’s 1959 classic 400 Blows, but we get little sense–as we might in a Hollywood fairy tale–that everyone will live happily ever after. Lebanon is still a world of child brides, children abducted and sold, women with little control over their bodies, and chaos reigning supreme.

Zain Alrafeea is riveting and was quite a find; literally so as in real life he is a Syrian refugee who was illiterate when cast in the film. Alrafeea is now in Norway, but his future remains uncertain. Like I said, Labaki doesn’t trade in fairy tales. Capernaum has won numerous awards, including several at Cannes. It is a deeply moving film that, in most years, would be an odds-on favorite to win an Oscar as best foreign film. In 2018, though, it is at best the fourth best foreign film in a stunning field that includes Cold War, Roma, and Shoplifters. It is nonetheless a stunning journey into Sheol. Don’t look away because you don’t want to know about what Zain endures; watch because you should know.

Rob Weir


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