Saturday, June 06, 2020


Directed by Nadine Labaki and screenplay by Labaki, Jihad Hojaily, and Michelle Keserwany from a story by Labaki, Hojaily, Keserwany, Georges Khabbaz, and Khaled Mouzanar, Capernaum is the story of a 12-year old boy living in the slums of Beirut as his encounter with an Ethiopian immigrant and her infant where he forces to think about his troubled life leading to him suing his parents over neglect and abuse. The film is a look into the life of a boy that is told primarily through flashbacks as he copes with his dreary existence and everything that is happening around him. Starring Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Bankole, Kawthar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Youssef, Nour el Husseini, Alaa Chouchnieh, Cedra Izam, Joseph Jimbazian, and Farah Hasno. Capernaum is a visceral yet evocative film from Nadine Labaki.

After stabbing a man over an incident relating to his family, a 12-year old boy living in the slums of Beirut decides to sue his parents over years of abuse and neglect as his case is brought to court where his story is told. It’s a film with a premise that is told in a reflective back-and-forth narrative as it’s told largely in court yet it explores the life of a boy as he endures hardships and struggles to survive for himself and his young siblings only to be kicked out of his home by his parents where he befriends an Ethiopian immigrant and help care for her infant son. The film’s screenplay uses this back-and-forth narrative as it reflects the plight that Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) endures as the first act explore his life in the slums as he is one of several children living under the roof of his parents Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef). Zain’s younger sister Sahar (Cedra Izam) is start to come of age as Souad and Selim decide to have her be married to their landlord Assad (Nour el Husseini) whom they owe.

That’s all in the first act as the second act has Zain run away to the more upscale Ras Beirut where he meets the Ethiopian Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) who has an undocumented infant son in Yonas (Boluwatife Bankole) as she lets Zain live with her as he would help babysit her son. Rahil would work but her forged work visa is to expire as she has little money to get new documents as she tries to deal with the forger Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh) who wants to help but also in wanting to have Rahil give Yonas up for adoption so that he can have a better life. Yet, Zain would continue to help Rahil as well as treat Yonas as a younger brother but things become complicated leading to an intense third act.

Nadine Labaki’s direction definitely has an air of realism as it is shot largely on hand-held cameras to give the film a documentary feel though not in its look. Shot on various locations in and around Beirut and other parts in Lebanon, much of Labaki’s direction emphasizes on realism as much of the cast in the film are non-actors as well as the settings to showcase this air of reality in these slums. While there are some wide shots of the locations as well as a look of the slums from above and Beirut itself, much of Labaki’s direction aims for intimacy in the usage of close-ups and medium shots as it play into Zain’s own plight and the journey he would take. Even as Labaki showcases the mundane activities he had to do to help his family including sell drug-laced clothes to prisoners and other things as he is aware that what he’s doing is wrong yet has to survive. During the film’s second act where he’s in the city and goes to a theme park where he meets Rahil, he learns about what she does as she also lives in a slum-like area where the home is small and cramped.

Labaki also play into the plight of refugees as it relates to Rahil and her son as they’re both undocumented with Zain also undocumented due to the neglect from his parents. Even as Rahil goes missing for a period of time during its second act with Zain having to care for Yonas by himself as well as hoping to find some sanctuary after meeting a young Syrian refugee. The third act is about Zain making a decision for himself and to find hope but also in discovering a tragedy that would sever whatever ties he had left with his family leading up to this trial. Labaki’s direction in the trial scenes are simple but also intense due to the tension that is prevalent throughout between Zain and his parents as well as the subject of abuse and neglect as Zain’s parents do get their say though there is a lot that does play into Zain’s hopelessness and his reasons to find hope not just for himself but also for those who are dealing with the situation he’s in. Overall, Labaki crafts an intoxicating yet unsettling film about a boy in Beirut who sues his parents over their abuse and neglect towards him.

Cinematographer Christopher Anou does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography as it play into the realism of the photography with its emphasis on natural lighting with available light used for the interior/exterior scenes at night. Editors Konstantin Bock and Laure Gardette do excellent work with the editing as it is largely straightforward with some rhythmic cuts to play into the drama. Art director Hussein Baydoun does fantastic work with some of the look of the homes that Zain would live in as well as a mirror that he would use to watch cartoons with Yonas from another person’s home. Costume designer Zeina Saab de Melero does terrific work with the costumes from the traditional Ethiopian clothing that Rahil wears to the more street-like look that many of the other characters wear.

Hair stylist/make-up artist Michelle Sleiman does nice work with some of the film’s minimal effects including some makeup that Rahil wears when she has to go out and get some money as well as the look of Souad. Sound designer Chadi Roukoz does superb work with the sound in capturing the atmosphere of the locations as well as in some of the collage of sound that play into the world that Zain is in as it’s a highlight of the film. The film’s music by Khaled Mouzanar is wonderful for its low-key string orchestral score that play into the drama and sense of despair that occurs throughout the film.

The casting by Jennifer Haddad is marvelous as it feature some notable small roles from Farah Hasno as the young Syrian refugee Maysoun that Zain befriends in the second act, Joseph Jimbazian as an amusement park worker who is dressed up like a character similar to Spider-Man, director Nadine Labaki as Zain’s attorney in the trial scenes, Nour el Husseini as the landlord of Zain’s parents in Assad who runs a local market and would take Sahar as his wife as payment for rent from Zain’s parents, Alaa Chouchnieh as Rahil’s forger Aspro who offers to help Zain and Rahil out despite his dark plans as he presents himself as a kind-hearted figure, Cedra Izam as Zain’s younger sister Sahar who is worried about being sent off to be married when she’s really too young, and Boluwatife Bankole as Rahil’s infant son Yonas whom Zain would help take care of.

Kawthar Al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Youssef are brilliant in their respective roles as Zain’s parents in Souad and Selim as two people who have a lot of children as well as do whatever to make money but would neglect their own children with Haddad as the mother who is often cruel and forces Zain to do things with Youssef as the lazy father who feels like he is the one being abused by Zain. Yordanos Shiferaw is incredible as Rahil as an Ethiopian immigrant Zain meets at a theme park as he offers to help her out in taking care of her infant son Yonas as she struggles to keep working in Beirut while her forged visa had expired in the hope she can give herself and her son a good life. Finally, there’s Zain Al Rafeea in a phenomenal performance as Zain as a 12-year old boy struggling to deal with a life of despair and uncertainty as he also copes with the abuse and neglect he suffers as it is this hardened yet heartfelt performance from a young man who is trying to find an idea of hope in a hopeless world.

Capernaum is a tremendous film from Nadine Labaki that features great performances from Zain Al Rafeea and Yordanos Shiferaw. Along with its naturalistic visuals, emphasis on realism, and its exploration of abuse and neglect from the perspective of a young boy in Beirut. It’s a film that showcases the life of a boy as he struggles to find his place in the world as well as ponder why he is in a hopeless situation in a world where there is so much chaos. In the end, Capernaum is a spectacular film from Nadine Labaki.

Nadine Labaki Films: (Caramel) - (Where Do We Go Now?) – Rio, Eu Te Amo-O Milagre

© thevoid99 2020


Brittani Burnham said...

God, this movie was so devastating. I just wanted to hug those two children. Excellent film, just a hard watch.

keith71_98 said...

Another new one for me. Thanks for talking about it. SOunds REALLY intriguing.

thevoid99 said...

@Brittani-It is a hard watch but it was worth it to the end as I really want to beat the shit out of the boy's parents for what they did to him and to themselves. Those parents and the ones in Loveless are definitely the worst parents in cinema.

@keith71_98-I think it's on Starz! still as it's worth seeking out though it is tough to watch.