Nadine Labaki’s third film continues to explore the multiple layers of Lebanese society that she first started observing and documenting with Caramel. But this time, she goes for the emotional jugular.
Social realism is always a tough chestnut to crack. Because it’s the point of a view of an artist who, more often than not, doesn’t belong to the social reality being represented, it opens the door to moral conundrums on how to fairly represent certain aspects of our social ladder without falling in cheap exploitation. When it works, it’s powerful and life-affirming. But when it’s doesn’t it’s patronising and condescending. The equivalent of a rich family sponsoring a poor child in Africa, an anemic gesture that results in nothing substantial.
Happy to say that Capernaum isn’t one of those.
It starts with the trial of a young child, Zain (Zain Al-Rafeea), who is probably twelve years old and accused to kill a man. His parents, including the mother played by Labaki herself, are summoned to court not to defend him, but because Zain himself is suing them. The crime – that they gave birth to him.
What follows is a series of episodes that led to the aforementioned murder. Zain fails to protect his young sister from an arranged union with an adult man, runs away from home and meets Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an undocumented African immigrant with a newborn child. Zain goes through his journey seizing every opportunity he has to go ahead, but he never gets his own inherent humanity get in the way. He’s not a fallen angel wronged by the circumstances of society, nor a thug on a quest to find the virtues of compassion. He’s a product of his own upbringing, which in turn is a product of an economically fractured society. Everyone represented in Capernaum is there for a reason higher than any dramatic consequence, which is why the matter-of-factness of its tragedy never feels exploitative or cynical.
The key to all this is Zain Al-Rafeea himself. The 12-year old non-professional actor that Labaki found in the streets of Beirut, whose life is similar to the Zain he plays in the film, grasps the role with tenacity. The bursts of rage towards figures authority (be it any other adult, the police, or a judge) reminded me of the kids in the Italian neorealist films, whose bluntness stemmed from an ingenious will to survive day by day.
A note under the title at the beginning explains that Capernaum means ‘Chaos’, but I think it sells the film short. Labaki made a film that is not only thoroughly researched but that gives voice to those who have lived through it. It’s a film that understands exactly where this status quo comes from, and it only tangentially tries to resolve by expecting us to understand that whatever needs to be done has to be different from what is being done at the moment. She made a film with a pragmatic tone, but with such a strong subject matter it’s unavoidable to hit you like a sledgehammer.
Labaki’s hard-work paid off in spades. She’d always been a filmmaker who knew to how to represent culture in a fresh and exciting way, but here she’s not just setting her sights to observe a piece of Lebanon, she sets herself to change the fuckin’ world.
And next to her is a cast of amateurs that nail every scene like only people who know what they’re talking about could. Labaki is an engineer and the growth she showed as a filmmaker makes her right now the most exciting voice in the Middle Eastern film.
Capernaum is the kind of film that comes every once in awhile that it’s impossible to be oblivious about. It received a long standing ovation in Cannes and later took the Jury Prize home – and none of it is undeserved. Haven’t seen earnestness so raw since Maïwenn’s Polisse.