Capernaum would be nearly perfect if Labaki approached its plot with the vérité style she uses with the rest of the film.
A beautifully ugly film featuring a Dickensian story and excellent central performances, Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum would be nearly perfect if Labaki approached its plot with the vérité style she uses with the rest of the film. For Labaki, Beirut is the titular Capernaum, which was a Biblical city condemned to Hell by Jesus himself. And she (along with cinematographer Christopher Aoun) films it as such, showing every ugly corner of the Lebanese capital and its inhabitants. But while the camera finds hope there as well, most notably through the eyes and actions of young protagonist Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), the script (by Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Michelle Keserwany) commits itself to making heavy-handed points that could’ve been approached more subtly.
The film opens with Zain in jail for attempted murder. The film unfolds in flashbacks, with occasional framing scenes of Zain—who is around 12 years old but wasn’t registered with the government upon his birth—in court, where he is suing his parents in order to prevent them from having more children. The flashbacks reveal that Zain’s parents refused to send him to school, instead making him work from a young age. More egregiously, they married off Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam), his 11-year-old sister and closest sibling, in a business transaction.
Though the script itself is heavy on despair and condemnation, Labaki coaxes compassionate performances out of every performer, and even the parents (Kawsar Al Haddad and Fadi Yousef) are portrayed as identifiably human. The problems, rather, exist at higher levels, through a society that allows and even demands these horrible acts from its populace.
The most visually and emotionally stirring moments come not from these courtroom scenes but rather the middle portion of the film, when Zain runs away from home and finds work in an abandoned amusement park. Outside of the sheer visual delights that come from Zain’s childish glee at having this broken wonderland to himself, Zain also finds a temporary home with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal Ethiopian immigrant who does janitorial work to make ends meet. Zain helps out Rahil by looking after her young son Jonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) while she works, pulling the youngster around in a cooking pot while he journeys around Beirut. It’s a striking image, both whimsical and terrifying, and it is more effective at making Labaki’s case about the unfair burden placed on Beirut’s children than the more instructive courtroom scenes.
Comparisons can be made to thematically similar films, particularly 2002’s City of God and 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, both of which take on the joys and horrors of a city facing societal and/or environmental collapse. And while those films are superior to Capernaum, Labaki makes her project as distinctively Lebanese as City of God is Brazilian and Beasts of the Southern Wild is Louisiana bayou. She does this by showing multiple tiers of society; at its best, Capernaum jumps over rooftops, spins through temporary settlements, peeks in on military camps, motors over highways and descends into prisons and worse. The vitality and the devastation of these glimpses are enhanced exponentially because we see them through the eyes of a child.
While Capernaum’s script sabotages itself by attempting to teach viewers a lesson rather than allowing them to get there themselves, Labaki’s film still has much to offer. The title may suggest a city bound for Hell, but the characters, which include the city of Beirut itself, suggest a different fate.