*Spoiler alert* in order to review the film there are some spoilers I’m afraid….
Capernaumis Lebanese film-maker Nadine Labaki’s third big film – I strongly advise you to see her earlier ones, Where do we go now?and Caramel. It means chaos in Arabic and is also the place where Jesus performed miracles in biblical times, an intentional pun.
The film’s premise of a child suing its parents is extraordinary to us westerners, but not according to Labaki, who spent six months with street children in Beirut researching and filming Capernaum. A child told her in an interview, ‘I don’t know why I was born if no one is going to love me, if no one is going to kiss me before I go to sleep, if I’m going to be beaten up every day.’
Zain, a malnourished and minute 12-year-old is led handcuffed – why one wonders – into court to plead his case. In a crafty pastiche, Labaki herself plays his lawyer, an acknowledgement of her role in bringing the issue of Beirut’s destitute and abandoned children into the public eye. We learn early on that Zain has committed a terrible crime and stabbed someone. How did it get to this we wonder?
To answer this question, Labaki takes us back to the beginning. Zain and his family live in one room, his father a lazy layabout, his mother harassed from endless pregnancies and childrearing – there seems to be no end of snotty nosed kids running around. Zain has to work for a local shop-keeper, hauling gas cannisters and delivering food in return for the family’s rent and subsistence. His parents mete out beatings with impunity. He is understandably an angry and serious boy who has never known parental love and is denied the opportunity to go to school.
When his beloved 11-year old sister is traded like a piece of meat to the shopkeeper he experiences a powerless rage and absconds after taking a severe beating as he tried to intervene. He meets the surreal Cockroach Man on the bus which leads him to his destiny at the fairground. Here he scavenges for food, stealing a ride on the big wheel which takes him momentarily to heaven and tranquillity before banging him down to earth where he rips the bodice of the giant statue of a well-endowed woman which dominates the fairground. The film is packed full of strong imagery.
Then he meets Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), a paperless Ethiopian woman who cleans the restaurant loos and hides her baby in the toilet cubicle while she works. She takes pity on Zain and soon he is ensconced in her shack as a babysitter for her adorable one-year-old Jonas – how they got him to act goodness only knows, but he quite steals the show. She is saving up for a fake ID and is in thrall to a ruthless middleman Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh) who is only after Jonas – he has people willing to adopt him in exchange for her papers, he says.
When Rahil disappears, Zain is left in charge of Jonas. It is here that the miracle alluded to in the title unfolds, as he begs, steals and borrows food, water and nappies for his new charge, as if he was his older brother: he is as kind and as loving as a filthy street urchin can be. It is a strange turn of events.
There are some extraordinary scenes as he befriends another street girl, wise beyond her years, and as he drags Jonas round the market in a contraption he has fashioned from a stolen skateboard and some old saucepans, all shot at child’s-eye-level, making it terrifyingly realistic. We are seeing life from Jonas’s perspective, as he delightedly gurgles his way round the filthy streets.
This is an extraordinary and harrowing film about extremes of poverty and unbridled anger. Zain’s fury is palpable throughout the film, but even the reviled parents in a courtroom scene – perhaps staged for the judge’s sympathy – give vent to their resentment at being abandoned and forced to live in poverty, to be burdened with so many children, unable to love them as they should. Nevertheless they deserve some reluctant sympathy as the inequality inherent in society and exacerbated in Lebanon – a country where 50% of the inhabitants are refugees – forces the huge gap between rich and poor.
Its authenticity is all the more poignant in that every single part (with the exception of Labaki herself) is played by a non-professional actor. Zain Al Rafeea (Zain) is a Syrian refugee Nadine found on the streets, uneducated, angry and undernourished like his name-sake who is now, happily, living in Norway with his parents; poor Yordanos Shiferaw, who plays Rahil, was arrested for not having papers two days after filming. The prisoner and courtroom scenes were shot in court and jail, with real prisoners and real detainees making it all the more powerful.
It sounds grim, but there are moments of pure delight, for instance the bond between Zain and his sister, and whenever Jonas is centre stage. There is tenderness and empathy in the film running in tandem with the rage. All in all it is a great shame that politically-correct Green Bookwon best picture, Roma had to make do with best foreign film and this didn’t win that category. It is one of most outstanding films I have seen for a very long time