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Monday 21 January 2019

Caphernaüm (Capernaum), Lebanon 2018, co-written and directed Nadine Labaki, 8.5* out of 10

With Caphernaüm, Nadine Labaki and her team have made an important and powerful film that deserves prizes but makes for difficult viewing. Not easy to stop one's eyes from welling up with tears of anger and emotion. The unsentimental acting performance by the young charismatic Zain al-Rafeeah is brilliant and memorable. It stays with us long after the film has ended.

Beirut 2018. Serving a five-year jail sentence for a violent crime 12-year-old Zain (Zain al-Rafeeah) is suing his parents Selim (Fadi Yousef) and Souad (Kawsar al Haddad) for bringing him into this world. What follows is a flashback which shows Zain's life in Beirut’s poorest quarters where children are brought up as slaves of their parents being farmed out to unscrupulous employers. They must learn to beg steal borrow in the chaos, dirt, and cruelty that surrounds them in order to survive from hour to hour. Zain’s best friend is his 11-year-old sister Sahar (Haita 'Cedra' Izzam); but his father sells her into marriage and seals her fate. Zain rages against his parents against the chaos around him. He runs away and finds a friendly adult in the illegal immigrant Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) from Ethiopia who asks him to babysit her one-year-old child Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). We follow Zain, Rahil, Yonas and the others as their lives are thrown into ever more unbearable chaos within which they are trying to survive with a last remnant of human dignity.

Caphernaüm, named after the chaotic biblical city in Northern Galilee, near where today’s Israeli town of Kfar Nahum stands, is near enough cursed to hell in the New Testament Matthew 11:23 “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.” That is the hard-hitting accusation that Nadine Labaki brings against all those who allow a place where young children face the chaotic violent and hopeless living conditions in full sight of the Lebanese government and the international humanitarian community. Living conditions forced upon their children by parents, relatives and neighbours who see themselves as victims of "the system" too. 

Accepting the fantastical premise of the boy dragging his parents to court and a court dealing with the case is a bit of a stretch to our credulity, but the hard-hitting almost unbearable depiction of the lives that street children and asylum seekers face in the poorest quarters of Beirut every day is heart-breaking. The moment when Zain decides that his best chance of getting food and a future is copying a young Syrian refugee-girl's accent and making up a war-story for himself to get food rations from UNHCR is shocking. There are a few scenes of humour too, but not of relief.

The chaos of the precarious street life is impressively captured by Nadine Labaki and her team. The viewer feels right in the middle of it,  looking at it from a child’s perspective, and it is gut-wrenchingly uncomfortable. 

The acting performance by young charismatic Zain is brilliant and memorable. It will stay with the audience long after the film has ended. Zain is unsentimental. He curses, he fights and he accuses the adult world around him with an unrelenting harshness of judgment that it deserves. 

Caphernaüm won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, was nominated for a Golden Globe and is Lebanon’s entry for Best Foreign Movie at the 2019 Oscars. 

Nadine Labaki and her team have made an important and powerful film that deserves prizes, but it makes for difficult viewing. Therefore, I would advise discretion in deciding whether to go and see it. While the ending is somewhat unbelievably not all doom and gloom, I did not sleep too well in my oh-so-comfortable bed in my oh-so-comfortable apartment after seeing Caphernaüm.

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