Capernaum film still of 12-year-old Zain (Zain al Rafeea)


While not without its flaws, Capernaum is an important film in its disturbing depiction of the lot of migrants and refugees – especially children – battling to survive in unsupportive countries. Worth seeing for the startling performance of the child lead alone.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: (rolanstein)
Capernaum (rough translation, chaos) is a difficult film to assess.

On one hand, it’s an astonishingly realistic and confronting depiction of the unmitigated misery of unsupported (if not unregistered) migrants in Lebanon, particularly children, and the dehumanising effects of their impoverishment and rock-bottom status. As such, this is an important work. It could be argued that it should be mandatory viewing, a means of re-sensitising us to the refugee crisis, a 21st Century tragedy of unprecedented scale that affluent and powerful countries seem to be unprepared to tackle with any real commitment.

On the other, as a film Capernaum has some flaws that can’t be overlooked in a review. The most glaring of these is the virtually unrelenting hand-held camerawork. The visuals lurch and jump all over the place throughout, and while the intent is probably to underscore the chaotic nature of the characters’ existence, it’s an overdone and ham-fisted tactic. The effect is ultimately distracting, distancing rather than immersing the viewer.

Secondly, the sprawling narrative skits back and forward in time, coming across as a bit haphazard at times. It opens in court, where 12-year-old Zain (Zain al Rafeea) is in the dock, with his parents also involved in the proceedings.

Zain is doing time in a centre for juvenile offenders for a stabbing offence. As the film progresses, we learn via extended flashbacks that he was forced into a daily battle for survival on the streets by his neglectful and abusive parents. It is they, not he, who are the defendants here: he is suing them for giving birth to him. Dramatic and heart-rending certainly, but no court (or lawyer) would take on such a case.

Putting aside the incessantly jumpy camerawork and implausible premise of the film, Capernaum is an impassioned call for action from director Nadine Labaki, who does her damnedest to deliver a slam to the guts of her audience – and succeeds.

This is largely due to the remarkable performance of the diminutive and perfectly cast lead. On screen almost the entire time, he holds the sometimes messy narrative together. Foul-mouthed, world weary and cynical far beyond his years, rendered “invisible” by his impoverished parents not even bothering to register his birth, Zain has somehow maintained a sense of basic decency. When his parents accept the landlord’s dowry of a couple of chickens for his 11yo sister, he metes out violent street justice and goes on the run. Taken in by an Ethiopian woman, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who is subsequently nabbed as an unregistered migrant, he assumes responsibility for her toddler, doing his best to keep them both fed and safe.

Zain is played by a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, whose life experience is similar to his character’s. That is, he did not attend school, learning instead the hard lessons that came from living on the streets. It shows in his startling performance.

Indeed, most of the cast are non-professionals with backgrounds similar to the characters they play. Labaki discloses in this fascinating interview that she encouraged them to improvise, changing her script as required. The results are sometimes extremely powerful. An address to the judge from Zain’s mother (Kawsar Al Haddad) towards the end of the film, which you sense is channelled direct from the heart, is particularly illuminating and affecting.

Edited down from over 500 hours of footage, Capernaum has a documentary-like realism about it that sat me back on my privileged arse. I don’t rate it as a great film per se, and it raises questions of exploitation given the real-life situations of its cast, but perhaps the end justifies the means.

Unlike in, say, the morally contemptible Slumdog Millionaire, Capernaum does not let first-world viewers off the hook (except in its very last frame) – there is no happy ending for these characters. And as winner of the 2018 Jury Prize at Cannes and having been nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, it might play some small part in raising first-world concern over the grim reality faced by millions of dispossessed people. That alone sets this disturbing film apart and enhances its topical value.

Movie Website:

Capernaum (original title Capharnaüm) features: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Yousef
Director: Nadine Labaki
Writers: Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Michelle Keserwany, Georges Khabbaz, Khaled Mouzanar
Runtime: 126 mins

Capernaum screening dates (2018-19 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival):
Somerville: 11-17 Feb, 2019, 8pm
Joondalup Pines: 19-24 Feb, 2019, 8pm

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