CAPERNAUM is the place around the Sea of Galilee where Jesus of Nazareth preached during Biblical times. According to the film title appearing on screen, it also means chaos – a word that accurately describes director Nadine Labaki’s gut-wrenching story of poverty as seen from the eyes of a young boy in Lebanon. CAPERNAUM is guerrilla filmmaking at its best winning at Cannes 2018, both the Jury Prize and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. Filmed in Arabic.
The film opens with a young handcuffed boy brought to court where he is being tried for murder. He has stabbed a man several times. His parents are there and the boy wishes to sue his parents for giving birth to him. The camera shifts to the face of the boy’s attorney, who is splayed by director Labaki herself. He claims his parents have no right to bring children into the world when they are unable to feed or care for them. The film then rolls back in flashbacks to reveal the incidents leading to this awkward yet sad state of affairs.
Zain (Zain al Rafeea) is 12 years, or thereabouts, given that he has no papers or birth certificate. He is mounting his case from jail, where he is serving five years. The story then flashes back – to tell why he ran away from home and ended up caring for a toddler (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) after meeting an Ethiopian illegal (Yordanos Shiferaw) who, like Zain, is without documents. It turns out that Zain is in jail as he stabbed a man who married his 14-year old daughter, impregnating her and then causing her death. Zain had loved his sister and tried his best at preventing her from being sold by her parents. The scene with Zain and his sister sleeping arm in arm is the perfect image the audience needs to see for director Labaki to make her point.
The performances from the non-actors, who according to the press notes live lives similar to that depicted on screen are terrific. Zain al Rafael as Zain the boy is nothing short of terrific. The film has two best scenes, one where he discards his mother’s affections when visited in juvenile detention and the other in court where the mother tells the judge off, that no one should be judging her as they do not know how desperate her situation is.
The situation in Lebanon is no better either. Labaki’s camera reveals the overcrowded prison conditions, where cells are packed with people, women and children. The streets are filthy and goods are bartered in the makeshift marketplace. Taps in Zain’s abode flush rust coloured water. Lebanon would likely be the last place on your tourist list after seeing this film.
CAPERNAUM is a 2019 Golden Globe nominee and Lebanon’s 2019 Oscar submission in the best foreign language film category. It is also on my Top 10 list for Best films in 2019, as it opens in January 2019. CAPERNAUM is a film that demands to be seen to appreciate the poverty in the world.