You might call Capernaum the “feel-bad movie of the year,” which is perhaps not the best way to sell people on it. It’s absolutely worth seeing, though, even if it’s by virtue of its subtle defiance. Director and co-writer Nadine Labaki seems to be insisting we face the truth of what we’re doing to ourselves.
And it’s not in the manner you might expect. The story revolves around young Zain (Zain Al Rafeea, excellent in his resigned stoicism), who is so scrawny and small he appears much younger than his apparent twelve years of age. He doesn’t even know for sure how old he is; his parents don’t either. No one has any official papers to prove it, and his parents (played by Kawsar Al Haddad and Fadi Yousef) never bothered to care.
And therein lies the point: Zain is suing his parents. His reason? Because he was born.
When it comes to kids who are brought up in crime and squalor, this is honestly an impressively clever idea. Zain didn’t ask for this life, and he has no choice in having had it foist upon him. He’s currently serving five years in a juvenile jail for stabbing a man — or, as he says in court, “a son of a bitch.” This elicits giggles from people in the courtroom, and even from the movie’s audience. Then it slowly dawns on you what the true reason behind the attack may have been.
Zain has too many siblings. He still cares about them, especially Sahar (Haita “Cedra” Izzam), who he helps, in vain, try hiding the fact that, at 11 years old, her menstrual cycle has begun. Before long there is talk of marrying her off to the young man who lets them all live on his property rent free. Zain, understandably, doesn’t trust him. His and Sahar’s parents characterize it as a survival move, that they are doing Sahar a favor.
A rather long stretch of Capernaum — which, in the title credits, is translated as “chaos,” a colloquial use of the word that also doubles as the name of a doomed Biblical village — follows Zain after he gets fed up with his family and runs away, surviving on his on on the streets of Beirut. He is taken in by an Ethiopian woman, Rahil (Yardanos Shiferaw), working in Lebanon illegally and with her own infant in tow. Capernaum really takes its time with Zain’s day to day life, particularly the one he settles into with Rahil, and the infant he winds up having to take care of on his own.
Zain is just trying to make the best of his situation, with an even mix of resignation and determination. Once he moves from life with his family to life with Rahil, it becomes less certain who it was he stabbed. This is one of several details that don’t become quite clear until the end, with some creative editing that slightly plays with the story’s timeline and is also borderline contrived. The majority of the story is told in flashback, from relatively odd scenes in the courtroom in which Zain insists his parents should not be allowed to have more children. And we’re left to think about how right he is, whether it’s his Lebanese parents or parents in the world beyond.
Capernaum ends on a hopeful note, albeit one that is as bittersweet as it is emotionally affecting. The last image of Zain’s face will haunt you.