Capernaum opens with a scene that could have been lifted straight from a mawkish Hollywood weepie. Twelve year old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is attempting to sue his parents. Their crime? They have given him life and it has turned out to be one of unrelenting misery. If this device seems sensational, stay in your seat – because from here the film cuts away to show us Zain’s existence on the streets of Beirut, and it isn’t long before we’re pretty much in agreement that he’s been dealt a bad hand of cards.
Zain lives cheek by jowl in a tiny run down apartment with his eight siblings. The children are all forced to participate in the money-making schemes of their desperate parents, which largely revolve around forging prescriptions for Tramadol and distributing the drug to various relatives housed in the local prison. These scenes are explored with almost documentarian attention to detail, plunging me headlong into harrowing poverty and desperation and making me supremely grateful for my own comfortable existence. The actors are all non-professionals, which adds to the sense of verité.
When Zain isn’t dealing drugs, or selling fruit drinks on the street, he’s fetching and carrying and trying to look out for his eldest sister, Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izza), who has just started menstruating and, at the tender age of eleven, is therefore considered a promising matrimonial prospect for Assaad (Nour El Husseini), the man who owns the property in which the family live. So no pressure there.
When, in one of the film’s most devastating sequences, the family is forced to hand Sahar over to Assaad, Zain reaches breaking point and runs away from home. Finding himself in a ramshackle fairground, he is taken in by Ethiopian immigrant, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who gives Zain food and shelter in exchange for him babysitting her infant son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). But Rahil is working in Beirut on forged papers and, when she is arrested, Zain is, quite literally, left holding the baby. His life now consists of finding food and water in order to keep Yonas alive.
This is a harrowing and deeply affecting story, centred around a truly extraordinary performance from Zain Al Rafeea. He trudges resolutely through an onslaught of slings and arrows, looking for all the world like a glum-faced angel – indeed, the moment where he finally locates his smile is almost transcendental. His scenes with the (adorable) baby are also beautifully judged, even though they amp the anxiety factor up to the maximum. Complex issues are brilliantly explored with plenty of nuance and subtlety and, for the most part, the film is not judgemental. Zain’s parents are not the evil caricatures they could so easily have been, but people driven to extraordinary measures in order to survive.
So it’s a shame, then, that the film’s final message – that poor people should have fewer kids – is over-simplistic and only partially explained by the fact that it’s essentially a child’s-eye view of the situation. We all know, don’t we, that the problem is far more complicated than that?
But Nadine Labaki’s film is an undeniably powerful one and it’s no surprise that it’s been nominated for this year’s foreign Language Oscar. It’s also the latest in a whole series of movies that have me weeping inconsolably in my seat. Capernaum may not be perfect but I defy anyone to sit through this and not feel moved by it.