Capernaum

The love of a child is a wonderful thing.

(2018) Drama (Sony ClassicsZain Al Raffea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Yousef, Cedra Izzam, Alaa Chouchnieh, Elias Khoury, Mohammad Al Abdallah, Faten Asmar, Lama Begaum, Mohammad Chabouri, Samira Chalhoub, Nour El Husseini, Mohammad Hammoud, Farah Hasno, Tamer Ibrahim, Nadine Labaki. Directed by Nadine Labaki

 

Some movies are meant to be light entertainment. Others are meant to be a punch to the gut. This film is of the latter persuasion.

This Lebanese film – winner of the Jury Award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival where it debuted, and also nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Oscars – introduces us to Zain (Al Raffea), a young refugee boy living in Beirut with his parents and many siblings. He is closest to 11-year-old Sahar (Izzam) who periodically joins him on the streets, trying to raise money by selling cups of tomato juice. When his hapless parents – bleary-eyed father (Yousef) and overwhelmed mother (Al Haddad) – sell Sahar to a pedophilic shop owner (El Husseini) for a bunch of chickens, he realizes that he cannot live in that house anymore and runs away.

On the streets he finds Rahil (Shiferaw), an undocumented refugee from Ethiopia with a cute little toddler son Yonas (Boluwatife) who gives Zain shelter and food. In return, Zain watches little Yonas while Rahil goes to work, trying to earn enough to buy forged work permits from Aspro (Chouchnieh) who would be willing to exchange the forged papers in exchange for her son, which she absolutely refuses to do. When Rahil doesn’t show up back home from work one night, Zain is forced to try and get food and money any way that he can. Then, he receives word of a tragedy that will change the trajectory of his life and put him in jail, where he decides to sue his parents for having given him life.

The movie alternates between courtroom drama and social realist drama, with the latter taking the bulk of the film and with good reason for it is much more fascinating than the legal drama. Labaki tells the story mostly in flashbacks from the courtroom proceedings, which while packing some emotional punch do not compare to the almost matter-of-fact way that Labaki displays everyday horrors that confront the impoverished in Lebanon.

As with her other films (this is her third feature), Labaki casts mostly non-professionals in roles that parallel their own lives. The actors were encouraged to react to various events as they would in real life, giving the film a raw you-are-there quality. There are no punches pulled here nor does Labaki offer apologies for the way Zain and his parents act; they are desperate people doing whatever it takes to survive, but at least Zain is able to find humanity within his heart through caring for Yonas. His parents never do.

The movie, at two hours long, is overwhelming in a lot of ways and should not be undertaken lightly. Still, if you need to understand that there are people who have it worse than you do – a lot worse – this is the film to see. It is also the film to see for the cutest toddler performance ever, which is counterbalanced by the blazing performance given by Zain who swears like a sailor throughout and although he’s 12 or 13 (his parents aren’t precisely sure and there’s no paperwork to prove that Zain even exists) he is wise well beyond his years. In any case, lovers of movies shouldn’t pass up this gem.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating mix of courtroom drama and slice of life. Realistic, raw performances throughout. Never pulls punches.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: The boy who played Zain has since been relocated with his family to Norway where he is learning to read and write.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Yonas is portrayed in the movie as a male toddler, the baby playing him is actually female.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV,  Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Sling TV,  Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Separation
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Mindfulness Movement

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