Capernaum, Cinema’s portrayal of extreme poverty often presents issues in regards to ethical decision making.
With a sober storyline, “Capernaum” discusses an insightful question that’s difficult to answer: How do you maintain a respectfully realistic tone without frustrating or cheapening your viewers? Nadine Labaki successfully walks that tightrope with her story in “Capernaum,” which is co-written by her and Jihad Hojeily.
Humanizing the experience, “Capernaum” sheds light on the pain of underprivileged people who struggle to live in this world. The film doesn’t feel exploitative or sensationalistic with a nuanced matter-of-factness that allows it to never turn into pity.
At the end of each day, the protagonist values self-sufficiency, resourcefulness and reflects on exhausting, hopeless days with no promise or opportunity for a better tomorrow.
Zain, the show’s protagonist, was played by 12-year-old Zain Al Rafeea with shocking conviction and level of emotional maturity. An unregistered 12-year-old living in the deprived slums of Lebanon with his uneducated parents and a crowded group of brothers and sisters, Zain is both a competent problem solver and a perceptive observer.
These characteristics that used to be commendable in adults become heartbreaking when they are forced on children.
in Capernaum, Zain has a young man’s appearance but faces many adversities due to his age. For a while, he doesn’t even recognize the value in childhood.
We see how capable, sharp and observant the boy is early on when we realize that his beloved sister, who just got her period, would be sold to a suitor in exchange for chickens.
So he helps his sister clean up after the festival and fills her bags with non-perishable food that other people left behind. He also steals feminine hygiene products for her from the local grocer and teaches her how to hide the traces of her blooming body. Despite all his efforts, he unfortunately loses his sister.
In the book, “Zain runs away from home to avoid dealing with his family’s problems and one day faces his desperate parents in court. In the book, “Zain runs away from home to avoid dealing with his family’s problems and one day faces his desperate parents in court.” In this manner, the story jumps between two time frames with the first being told in flashbacks and the second within Zain’s present.
Labaki’s courtroom scenes rely heavily on speeches and explanations to move the story forward. Although they are doing this, they also play against a feature of her film, which is “show, don’t tell.”
The filmmakers subtly interfere with the narrative by suggesting ways for the story to conclude. The film begins to seem unfinished, I found myself wondering why the film doesn’t just resolve into some kind of courtroom sequence.
The aforementioned drawback is left for the side, in which the audience learns about Zain, who has been abandoned by his family. This part of the story revolves around Rahil, an Ethiopian refugee who illegally works as a maid and raises Yonas from a toddler.
Zain plans for his escape, baby Yonas takes care of himself as Rahil disappears.
Labaki’s work has a raw authenticity often found in films with naturalistic lighting and camera movements, such as Garth Davis’s “Lion,” Vittorio De Sica’s “Shoeshine,” and Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project.” It is not as sophisticated in its artistic qualities as these films.
In his film Capernaum, Labaki builds the background of Zain’s dead-end life with carefully measured details: every dried tear, every piece of hand-me-down clothing, his issues with mud and dust allude to the harsh daily life of a world where babies wear chains (not only metaphorically) so that they cannot get themselves into danger or trouble while unattended. And thankfully, the filmmaker affirmed they have no interest in misery porn by the end.
Near the end, Zain is rewarded by his mentor for his steadfast love and ingenuity. We also get to see a bit of the child in him that he’s never had the opportunity to be (or in all likelihood, ever seen).