BIFFes 2019 review: Capernaum
Directed by: Nadine Labaki
Cast: Zain al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Cedra Izam
Capernaum (Arabic: “Chaos”) is the story of Zain al Hajj (played by Syrian refugee Zain al Rafeea), one among many children to his parents, who sues them following a long string of misfortune. When the judge questions him as to why he is doing this, he answers: they gave birth to him.
The whole film is a journey to its beginning, when we see Zain file a case against his parents.
Around 12 years old, Zain al Hajj, with his small army of siblings, has come to live a somewhat stable life.
His family runs a number of small-time operations and Zain himself has come to be wiser and more profane than his years would suggest, capable of weaving a grand tapestry of insults and curses that would make grown men back away.
But for all his loose tongue and his parents’ failings, which has put him and his siblings in living hell, he is a surprisingly faithful and kind person.
This is made obvious by his dedicated attempts to protect his sister, Sahar, when she begins menstruating, because he fears their parents will marry her off. His fear comes true: they get her to wed the landlord’s son.
There begins his adventure! He seeks refuge in an amusement park, scrounging to live day-to-day till he meets and takes shelter with Rahil, an illegal Ethiopian and his son, Yonus. Zain and Yonus’ bonding is the most endearing aspect of the entire film, with Risha being the glue that binds it together.
Through Yonus, Zain takes on the responsibility of a brother that he abandoned, as trust and respect comes to bring them and Rahil three together as a sort of family. It is the only time a measure of heaven is seen in the hell that is life.
In the courtroom, we have a kindly judge and a keen jury who want to listen to Zain and know why he has moved the court against his parents – and how that is connected to his prison sentence.
Here, director Nadine Labaki presents child trade in a matter-of-fact way. From Sahar practically being sold off at the age of 11, so that the parents can keep living in their house, to how a certain trader has his eyes on Yonus, the film does not shy from showing the darkness in the hearts of people and how they can give or take children for the small comforts.
The film also shows how kindness and love cannot be easily smothered out of children, especially when it comes to Zain, who despite his obvious materialism and constant scheming to get whatever he can from the adults, never loses his tenderness and love for the people he cares about.
He’s never quite someone you root for, but he is someone who can be trusted to be faithful to a fault.
The Book of Matthew mentions ‘Capernaum’ as a city condemned by Christ for not believing in God, and the film is thematically just that – a nightmare that makes demons of people, but shows that even in hell, childish innocence and love can bloom.