Capharnaüm, directed by Un Certain Regard jury president Nadine Labaki, questions the ethics of having children

Baradwaj Rangan

Apr 11, 2019 17:29:46 IST

The Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival, second in importance only to the Competition, was created in 1978 by Gilles Jacob, former (and long-time) President of the festival. The aim was to showcase and reward more offbeat fare, or as the festival puts it: “The Un Certain Regard prize awards young talent and encourages innovative and audacious works by presenting one of the films with a grant to aid its distribution in France.”

This year’s jury president of this section is the Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, whose Capharnaüm (also known as Capernaum) was part of last year’s Competition and won the Jury Prize. The plot of this Arabic/Amharic film, set in Beirut, is reminiscent of the 1984 Hollywood comedy-drama, Irreconcilable Differences. That, too, was a film told in flashbacks, and its crux, too, was about an adorable little girl who went to court in order to “divorce” her parents who had no time for her.

Capharnaüm, directed by Un Certain Regard jury president Nadine Labaki, questions the ethics of having children

A still from Caparnaum

In Capharnaüm, it’s a little boy (though no less adorable) named Zain. He’s from an extremely underprivileged background, and when the film opens, he’s in a prison for minors. (He stabbed someone.) When he’s brought up to the judge, he says he wants to complain against his parents: “For bringing me into the world.” If the little girl in Irreconcilable Differences wanted more time and attention from her parents, Zain wants something even more basic: a life of dignity. He hates that he lives in a “shitty chicken coop”. He hates that his 11-year-old sister (she’s just begun having her period) was prettified with makeup and sold off in marriage (in exchange for chickens) to a much-older man, ostensibly because she’ll lead a better life. And later, he hates that his mother is pregnant again. The film brings up this point: Should people who are barely able to provide for themselves (be allowed to) have children?

Capharnaüm reemphasises this point through the plight of a young Ethiopian mother named Rahil, an immigrant who doesn’t have a residence permit. She fell in love, got pregnant and left her place of employment because she was scared the police would take her baby and expel her from the country. And now, she keeps her infant hidden in her house. A man named Aspro wants to sell the child to a well-off family that wants a baby. He tells Rahil, “I keep telling you, your son was born dead. He doesn’t exist. Even a bottle of ketchup has a name, with date of manufacture and expiry.... Your kid lives like a fugitive in this country. The day they discover him, you’ll both be expelled. He lives underground, like a rat. He never sees the sun. He’ll never go to school. I’m offering him a family. You can see him from time to time...”

No one can dictate who should and shouldn’t have children. (Digression alert: Come to think of it, that would make a great premise for dystopian sci-fi, something like Logan’s Run, where, due to resource scarcity, humans are killed off when they reach the age of 30. Here, you could see a similar situation of the State monitoring income levels in order to sanction the right to have a child.) But we forget, sometimes, that some people don’t think too much about pros and cons before having a child. The best scene of Capharnaüm is when Zain’s father tells the court, “[People] told me, ‘You’re not a man if you have no children. Children will be your backbone.’ But they broke my back, then broke my heart. I curse the day I got married.” Getting married, having children – these are often less a matter of choice than social pressure. Your heart goes out to Zain’s father as much as Zain.

Capharnaüm is very well-crafted, and the actors are superb – but I am not a big fan of this film. It’s too... cute. It’s a “social issue” movie that wants you to pinch its cheeks. It’s fairy-dusted neorealism, which isn’t ashamed of four-handkerchief melodrama (say, Rahil’s toddler being left perilously close to speeding cars on the road). In the worst scene, which occurs after Rahil is separated from her baby, she squeezes her breast and wails. As the milk runs over her hands, she keeps saying, “My son, forgive me! For the love of God forgive me!” The relentless emotional manipulation (set to overblown music) becomes unbearable. This movie is hard to hate, yet hard to respect – though Western critics seem to have embraced it. The New York Times said the film “goes beyond the conventions of documentary or realism into a mode of representation that doesn’t quite have a name”.

To explain why I found this film problematic, let me take the example of Manikandan’s superb Kaaka Muttai (Tamil), which was also structured around two children who grow up in the midst of dire poverty. But those boys wanted nothing more than to taste pizza, and the “director’s statement” – about globalisation arriving at the doorstep of the underprivileged, whose lives remain unchanged by all this progress – unfolds through a series of seriocomic events. The film comes first. In Capharnaüm, the message comes first. The “director’s statement” is stuffed into Zain’s mouth, and that’s too much weight to place on a boy who isn’t yet a teenager. But even if the how is a problem, the what isn’t – this is a director’s statement worth thinking about, a film worth thinking about.

As David Ehrlich wrote in IndieWire, “At a dark time when even affluent white Americans are questioning the ethics of bringing new life into this world, it makes sense for Labaki to put these concerns on trial.”

Updated Date: Apr 11, 2019 17:35:58 IST

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