There are a lot of geographic blindspots in my film viewing and a pretty big one is the Middle East. It maybe isn’t quite the blindspot that African cinema is, but with that continent I at least have the excuse of most of the rest of the film world being about as uneducated as I am. I’m not completely unversed in cinema from that region, I have a reasonable knowledge of Iran’s unique brand of brainy experimentation and if you include movies from places like Turkey, Israel, and North Africa I’m sure seen a couple dozen or so movies from the area and obviously that’s more than most people but compared with the number of movies I’ve probably seen from individual countries like France or Japan it’s really nothing. On top of that there isn’t really that much of a shortage of movies from the Middle East, like clockwork there tends to be at least one or two movies a year being imported in hopes of competing for that Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and that might actually be part of the problem. The movies from the middle east that they try to import around award season are universally about these countries’ social and political problems and they almost always draw reviews that are respectful but not overwhelming in their praise. This year’s contender for the “important movie from the middle east” award is the new Lebanese film Capernaum, and I’ve decided to give this one a go.
Capernaum begins in a Beirut courtroom where a child named Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) who’s currently serving a prison sentence for stabbing someone has had his parents Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef) brought in as defendants in a lawsuit. We’re told that these parents are ostensibly being sued for bringing Zain into a world of suffering, which more literally seems to be a suit for abuse or neglect or something (the legal grounds for all of this are rather vague). We learn that his parents had way more children than they can afford to support and never bothered to get any of them real birth certificates or papers. When these plainly awful guardians marry off Zain’s eleven year old sister Sahar (Cedra Izam) for dowry money Zain goes into a rage and run away from home. While away he encounters an illegal Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) who takes him in and gives him room and board in exchange for his watching her infant son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) while she’s at work, which goes pretty well until one day Rahil is rounded up in an immigration raid and Zain is stuck having to find a way to keep this kid alive while alone on the streets.
On its most basic level Capernaum is a kind of neo-neorealist movie about the life of a street kid in the poorest sections of Beirut. Zain is said to be about twelve in the movie (not knowing his actual age is something of a plot point) but he looks like he could be nine or ten and seeing him in this harsh environment is supposed to be a bit jarring. He speaks in very vulgar street terminology and while he does clearly have conscience he doesn’t seem to think twice about petty theft. This reminded me a bit of the Moroccan film Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, which came out about twenty years ago and also looked at the life of street kids in the Arab world, but where that really focused on a group of kids in this position this one really focuses in on Zain as a solitary figure alone in the city. The idea of people being alone in this cruel world is a bit of a recurring theme: Rahil seems to be similarly without anyone to depend on as her neighbors seem to be needlessly hostile towards her and she doesn’t seem to have a single friend who can help Yonas once she’s put in jail and the few people who should be acting as a support system like Zain’s parents seem to completely fail him.
Where the film starts to go astray is in its framing story. The trial that is meant to be the catalyst for much of this reflection makes very little sense if taken literally. I’m no expert on the Lebanese legal system but I doubt that there are any legal grounds for someone to actually sue their parents for choosing to bring them into the world and even if that is meant to be a stand-in for a more mundane charge like child neglect that would still be an unusual place to tell this whole story given that the parents aren’t even present for something like 60% of the story that Zain is telling. Even if you look at the trial sequences purely as a sort of metaphoric soapbox I’m still not exactly sure I’m on board with what the movie is saying. Zain’s final word on the matter is that he wants his parents to stop having so many damn kids they can’t afford, which is a message that rings a bit too close to the kind of “welfare queen” shaming that often characterizes discourse about poverty in this country. The movie isn’t completely in the position of demonizing poor parents as Rahil is clearly held up as an example of the kind of “working poor” who doesn’t deserve the misery she receives, but all too often the movie seems more interested in blaming poor people for their problems rather than highlighting the societal ills that are really at the heart of these problems. Ignore all that though and Nadine Labaki has still made a pretty compelling human story which seems to capture the environment it’s trying to shed light on pretty effectively.
*** out of Five