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New Release Review - CAPERNAUM

capernaum film review
A 12-year-old boy sues his parents for having given birth to him.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Nadine Labaki

Starring: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Nadine Labaki

capernaum film poster





In Preston Sturges' 1941 satire of well-intentioned but ignorant Hollywood liberals, Joel McCrea plays John L. Sullivan, a director known for a string of hit comedies who wants to branch out into the realm of social realism with an adaptation of 'O Brother Where Art Thou?', a novel concerning the plight of America's underclass. Thinking it will give him some profound insight, Sullivan adopts a form of 'poverty blackface', posing as a tramp and taking to the roads and railways of America. In the movie's key scene, Sullivan finds himself interred in a labour camp and experiences the joy a Disney cartoon brings to the inmates. Sullivan returns to Hollywood realising that the downtrodden would rather Hollywood entertain them than patronise them.

The director of Oscar nominated Lebanese drama Capernaum, actress turned filmmaker Nadine Labaki has clearly seen Sturges' film. In one of the few moments of heart and humanity in this often cold, condescending film, 12-year-old protagonist Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) positions a mirror outside the window of the shack he temporarily calls home so that the infant child he's become a surrogate brother to can watch cartoons on their neighbour's TV. Yet for most of its running time, Capernaum plays like the sort of poverty porn you imagine Sullivan's 'O Brother Where Art Thou?' might have turned out as.

capernaum film review


The framing device of Labaki's film comes off as preposterous in its po-faced presentation. While serving five years in juvenile prison for stabbing a "son of a bitch," Zain sues his parents "for giving me life!"

Over the next two gruelling hours, Labaki piles on evidence in support of the notion that Zain would have been better off never having been born. Initially he lives at home with his cruel parents and an uncountable number of siblings, who along with Zain are forced to bring in money through various schemes, some questionably legal (selling fruit juice on street corners), some most definitely illegal (selling home-made narcotics fashioned from a mix of prescription drugs).




When Zain's 11-year-old sister is traded as a wife to his family's landlord in exchange for some chickens, Zain decides he's had enough and leaves home, ending up under the wing of Rahil, an illegal Ethiopian immigrant who assigns Zain the task of looking after her infant boy Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, actually a baby girl) while she works and attempts to scrape together the money required to purchase a fake Lebanese ID card.

capernaum film review


Labaki piles on one hardship after the other when Rahil is arrested and the resourceful Zain is left to look after Yonas himself. There's an exploitative cheapness to how much tension the film mines from the potential of child abuse, and some scenes are difficult to watch, not just because of what's happening on screen, but because your mind starts to question how much trauma the infant 'actor' Bankole had to endure for the sake of this film. Let's face it, babies can't act, so when we're watching Yonas bawl his eyes out it's because Bankole is herself genuinely upset. I have a pretty liberal attitude concerning how far actors should be pushed for the sake of a performance, but a one-year-old child is a different matter!




Admittedly, it is a fantastic performance from Bankole, matched by Al Rafeea, himself a Syrian refugee whose own life story isn't too far from that of his character's. Yet despite the commitment of Al Rafeea, the script's insistence on giving Zain on-the-nose and improbably precocious dialogue continually reminds us that we're not watching a real child, but rather the vessel for a filmmaker's polemic, one that's considerably confused in this case.

capernaum film review


Whether intentional or not, Capernaum displays a cruel disdain for Beirut's lower classes, passing cold judgment without delving into why struggling people might take the sort of desperate measures we see here. All of the film's antagonists come from the underclass, while briefly glimpsed, educated middle class figures like the lawyer played by Labaki herself, the judge who improbably agrees to hear Zain's case and the angelic social worker who comes to 'the rescue' late on are portrayed in a manner that would have Capernaum labelled as a 'white saviour' narrative if its story took place in the West.

Does Labaki genuinely care about the plight of the poor or is she simply exploiting their predicament? One has to assume the former, but her film's central hook of questioning whether poor people should be allowed to raise children positions Capernaum uncomfortably close to the realm of classist, fascist propaganda.

Capernaum is in UK/ROI cinemas February 22nd.


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