Desperately moving and, at times, difficult to watch, Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum is resolutely unflinching in its depiction of Lebanon’s forgotten children through the gruelling experiences of 12-year-old Zain (newcomer Zain Al Rafeea, who gives a phenomenal, naturalistic performance). Forced to leave the cramped home he shares with his struggling parents and many siblings, Zain crosses paths with Ethiopian illegal immigrant Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who takes him into her meagre tin-shack home. While Rahil may be able to offer him shelter and a little food, Zain soon finds himself caring for her infant son, Yonas, while she goes out to scrape a living; a responsibility for which he is ill-equipped, but which he rises to with genuine care.
Capernaum‘s bookend framing device – a high-profile court case in which Zain sues his parents for their neglect – sets the tone for a film which bears witness to the most appalling human atrocities through the eyes of a child barely old enough to understand them. He blames his parents for the path his life has taken, little realising that are themselves forced into desperate action in an attempt to care for their children; that they are all caught in a vicious circle of poverty that plays out through the generations.
As cinematographer Christopher Aoun keeps the camera at child’s eye-level – adult heads are often cut out of the top of the shot, buildings loom ominously above – it’s clear that Zain, and hundreds of others innocents like him, are utterly trapped by their circumstances. That refugees such as Rahil should seek sanctuary in a place such as this is inconceivable; you can only imagine the life they have left behind.
Joining a host of recent works of both fact and fiction – such as Sudabeh Mortezai’s Joy and Gabrielle Brady’s Island Of The Hungry Ghosts – which highlight the refugee crisis engulfing the globe, Capernaum is a gut-punch reminder that the rise of isolationist politics is leaving swathes of human casualties in its wake. Devastating but utterly essential cinema
EDITOR’S NOTE: CAPERNAUM is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for December 7, 2018