Forget the Academy Awards and the films that were hailed as the so-called best of the last year, because this Lebanese production about a young boy trying to eke out an existence on the streets of Beirut is a remarkable piece of filmmaking that is better than any of those that contended for Best Picture at the annual Hollywood backslapping bash. I mean, don’t get me wrong, good luck to all of those who emerged from the Oscars ceremony with a statuette, but I challenge any of them to make something as profoundly moving and as beautifully constructed as Capernaum. This is a captivating piece of work that delivers remarkable insight into the plight of children born into poverty and raises questions around the culpability of parents subjecting children to impoverishment and a life devoid of hope and opportunity. In trying to summarise the film in a line or two, which is all the space that so many mainstream media outlets make available for arts analysis these days, Capernaum has been described as the “the movie where the kid sues his parents for having him”, which is a glib and somewhat disingenuous description of what transpires that doesn’t do justice to the issues that director Nadine Labaki is addressing or the mesmerising performance from young lead actor Zain Al Rafeea.
The portrayal of poverty in cinema is fraught with ethical challenges for filmmakers in trying to construct something that is realistic and emotional without being condescending or disrespectful to people less fortunate than themselves. Whilst Labaki, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jihad Hojeily and Michelle Keserwany, has captured the hardship and heartache of the underprivileged with great sensitivity, there is a matter-of-factness in her approach that is immensely powerful without being either exploitative or gratuitous. A boy who is assumed to be about 12 years old (neither he nor his parents know for sure because there is no official record of his existence and milestones such as birthdays are never acknowledged), Zain (Al Rafeea) possesses a remarkable level of emotional maturity and resourcefulness, with childhood a luxury he can’t afford. He lives with his uneducated parents in the slums of Beirut and spends his days working in a local store or peddling on the streets with his siblings, including his 11-year-old sister Sahar (Cedra Izam) with whom he is particularly close. When he discovers that Sahar has her first period, he steals some sanitary pads and implores her to keep it a secret from her parents, knowing that she will be sold as a bride.
When the inevitable happens, Zain runs away and eventually finds a safe haven with Rahil (Yordanas Shiferaw) an Ethiopian refugee who works illegally to support her toddler son. The trio function as a family unit of sorts for a while with Zain, who possesses an inbuilt sense of moral decency, taking care of baby Yonas (Bouluwatife Treasure Bankole) while Rahil works. But there is no such thing as stability in Zain’s world and when he is forced to return home in search of his birth records so that he can leave the country, a tragic event sends him into a rage that results in him being arrested and appearing in front of a judge. It is here that Zain indicates he would like to sue his parents for the life they have forced him to endure. The parents are pitched as the villain of the piece and with good reason; his mother is pregnant again despite the fact she cannot support the children she has and, as such, it is very easy to sympathise with Zain’s request even though suing them would be pointless because they have nothing.
If this sounds like a journey into misery, there are moments of joy, warmth and tenderness that bring some humanity to proceedings and the final frame does leave you with a sliver of hope. Himself discovered on the streets of Beirut by casting director Jennifer Haddad, Al Rafeea imbues his namesake with equal parts cheeky swagger and a vulnerability that you would expect from somebody so young. Some will claim that the film becomes repetitive over time and that is exactly the point because Zain’s life is repetitive, a daily grind of trying to secure enough food and other basics in order to survive another day; an endless cycle of desperation and a determination to keep himself and Yonas alive. Cinematographer Christopher Aoun shoots from a child’s eye point of view, presenting Beirut as a heaving, dilapidated, maze of decaying apartments devoid of the basic amenity that we take for granted. Capernaum – which apparently means ‘chaos’ – is an immersive, gripping cinematic experience that demands to be seen.