Capernaum movie cast: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordannos Shiferaw
Capernaum movie director: Nadine Labaki
Capernaum movie rating: Three stars
Young Zain is serving a five-year sentence in a Beirut prison for stabbing someone. For such a little boy, he is astonishingly poised, and heartbreakingly self-reliant. He knows he has no one to fall back on. His parents, such as they are, are of no help: they don’t even remember how old he is. Zain is alone, and has to learn to fend for himself.
Capernaum, which means ‘a disorderly accumulation of objects’, is an apt name for a film in which there seems to be no order. Zain doesn’t really have a home: when he walks into what passes for one in an unlovely Beirut slum, he finds irresponsible adults instead of responsible parents.
For a large part of the film, we see Zain (accompanied by a baby, whom he pulls along in a makeshift pram) trying to live by his wits, and to keep out of danger. From child peddlers, to heartless landlords, to adults preying upon teenage girls—these are things no young child should have to face on his own.
Labaki’s film, which won a jury prize and a standing ovation at the Cannes film festival in 2018, is a bit too melodramatic in places, and comes off a tad manipulative. How can you not be torn to bits when you see young ones struggling to survive in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the world? It’s all too much, but it never strays far from the real, because of the actors who look and sound rooted: Zain is played a by a real-life street-child. Almost everyone else in the cast plays reel versions of themselves.
The film is not all doom and gloom. It shows us that children, even in the most desperate circumstances, have enormous resilience. And that survival is a function of not just luck but intelligence. It also tells us not to be too quick to judge people: as Zain’s parents tell the judge presiding over his trial, they are immigrants with no papers, and without papers they are jobless. How will they feed the children?
The problem of war and strife and the homeless is there for everyone to see. War leads to nothing but destruction and poverty. Can it be avoided? Can humans live in amity? Yes, they can, under the right circumstances.
Sometimes, to get by, compassion and empathy is all we need.