Capernaum movie review: Nadine Labaki's Cannes 2018 Jury Prize-winning film is about chaos and miracles
Capernaum is the third feature film directed by Lebanese actress Nadine Labaki,
Rating: 4.25 (out of 5 stars)
Capernaum, the third feature film directed by Lebanese actress Nadine Labaki, is named after a fishing village that lay on the Sea of Galilee. It's come to symbolise a place of great disorder and chaos. According to the Gospels, Jesus variously cursed and performed miracles in this village, which included healing a paralytic and a Roman centurion. Chaos and miracles are the key ingredients of Labaki’s film as well. From the first drone shot that declaims the beginning of her film, she presents us with a ruinous and ramshackle vision of Beirut. The possessed, helter-skelter nature of the camerawork serves to fortify this vision. Its inhabitants, the “less than nothing”, can only hope for a miracle to escape these suffocatingly narrow, endless lanes full of refuse.
But this disorder pales in comparison to the upheaval taking place inside the film’s 12 year old Lebanese protagonist, Zain. From the moment he complains against his parents in a court for bringing him into this world, Labaki prepares us for a serious of tragedies that will descend upon this boy. He will witness things that’ll coerce him into growing up well before his time, enforcing a standard of maturity and expectation that few adults in the developed world are confronted with. He will hustle, lie, smoke, spout profanity and steal his way to survive on unforgiving streets. He’ll try to rescue his 11 year old sister from being married off for a gaggle of chickens, fail, and watch her being torn away from the family. He will run away from home, meet and live with an unregistered migrant Ethiopian woman, and be forced to take care of her one year old son when she’s detained by the authorities. Misery upon misery will be piled upon him. Not unlike Sisyphus, he will continue pushing back against the injustices of the world up until he’s broken. And he will be broken. But when he can’t stand watching the unbearable compliance of adults, he’ll take matters into his own hands, for he’s convinced that there’s no Jesus around to perform miracles.
Labaki leaves no stone unturned in making us confront the scale of injustice meted out to this young man. Zain, played by Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea, is the elephant in the room, and there’s no way she’ll allow you to look away. Judges, politicians and diplomats have done that well enough. More than a million Syrian refugees flocked to Lebanon after the civil war erupted in their land in 2011, stretching their adopted country’s limited resources, resulting in the mushrooming of neighbourhoods where thousands of Zains have their childhood snatched away from them. Therefore, it’s indeed a miracle that Zain somehow manages to hold on to his humanity amidst all the squalor. It is often hard to believe that he chooses goodness over pragmatism, especially since he’s learned to hustle like a pro. But then chaos and miracles is what Capernaum is all about. Zain’s eventual rebellion against his parents, his yowl of anger against adulthood, would never have appeared convincing if he’d fallen into the selfsame trap of convenience. And he would definitely not have found the tiny flecks of gaiety and intimacy with the friends he makes on his epic journey. Moments that edify this film beyond measure and also provide it with its most stunningly crafted scenes.
Capernaum, like the village its named after and the slum it’s set in, is messy and adulterated. Sometimes it raves and rages like an alcoholic, and fumes and shouts like a protester at others. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Zain and Labaki understand that all too well. So she fashions a visual and editing grammar that attempts to absorb and reflect the rhythms beating inside Zain and the city around him. Take the segment which follows Zain and Yonas, the migrant’s son, as they try to survive in the mother’s absence. Labaki fleshes performance by plucking the reactions and gestures that come out of the interactions between Zain and a one year old boy and placing them cleverly within the context of the film. Consider the logistical and editing nightmare that can ensue. But it results in a section that is despairing, hopeful, beautiful and often even funny. More significantly, it fits into the larger picture and exposes the injustice that migrants undergo on a daily basis.
In fact, almost all the major characters in Capernaum are migrants in one way or another. Zain’s family doesn’t have the proper papers to assert his identity. Nor does Rahil, Yonas’ mother. Their houses can be snatched away from them the moment they cease to entertain their landlords. Everybody seems to be biding their time anxiously in their tabernacle. Zain is perpetually on the move and begins dreaming of going away to Sweden when a young Syrian girl tells him about this magical land where they can do whatever they want. Only, in his case, he begins saving for it immediately, for he knows no one will come to wish him away from here.
One can argue that the chaos and miracle that form the lifeblood of the film don’t come together convincingly in the end. That the third act, so to speak, fails to match the quality and the emotional depths of the filmmaking that’s preceded it. There is a grain of truth to that argument. This section indeed feels like it was inserted for a particular dramatic effect. But that is largely true for the film in its entirety. It can appear like a miserabilist vision that deliberately enhances the effect of its carefully construed sub-plots.
However, Zain’s reality is so far removed from our own, from the judges who preside over his case, perhaps even the director’s, and so agonisingly at the mercy of circumstance, that it can only be depicted as a maelstrom of emotion and desperation. All that a child like Zain might encounter while growing up in these neighbourhoods form the story and sub-plots of the film. These are situations and scenarios so disturbing that only a miracle can seem like a way to escape them. By choosing to focus on a child while telling the story of her land, Labaki makes the most significant decision of Capernaum. For even when children have ceased to believe in miracles, they are the ones most deserving of them.
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The emotional beats are inconsistent and overly melodramatic, bordering on preachy in a few instances.
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