Capernaum (2018)

Could be dramatically overwhelming at times, but this Cannes Jury Prize winner more or less pulls through admirably, with an extraordinary performance by its non-professional leading child actor.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Nadine Labaki
2018 | Lebanon | Drama | 126 mins | 2.35:1 | Arabic & Amharic
NC16 (passed clean) for language and some drug material

Cast: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole
Plot: While serving a five-year sentence for a violent crime, a 12-year-old boy sues his parents for neglect.
Awards: Won Jury Prize & Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (Cannes).  Nom. for Best Foreign Language Film (Oscars)
International Sales: Wild Bunch
Singapore Distributor: Anticipate Pictures

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Heavy/Sociopolitical
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Review #1,667

(Reviewed at Singapore Film Society screening)

Spoilers: No

With two major award-winners in as many years, it is exciting times for Lebanese cinema. The Insult (2017) won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival, whilst last year’s Capernaum (which means ‘chaos’) won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Only the third feature for Nadine Labaki, whose first two films, Caramel (2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (2011) also competing at Cannes, Capernaum is one of the standout world cinema titles of the year, though it may not be as universally-acclaimed as, say, Kore-eda’s Shoplifters or Cuaron’s Roma, the latter the hot favourite for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Not surprisingly, Labaki’s work has been nominated as well, but it is surely the more dramatically overwhelming of the trio.  This could be its downfall, as some critics have pointed out, for its manipulative drama and slick ‘poverty porn’ aesthetic may be too heavy-handed for some.

Centering on a young boy, Zain, who is so much more mature and streetwise than his age would suggest, Capernaum opens in a courtroom as the lead protagonist does the unprecedented: suing his own parents for having birthed him… into this godawful world where the lowly, struggling class must survive like rats in a sewer.

The lead child actor who stars as Zain is actually a Syrian refugee.

Zain is played by Zain Al Rafeea in an extraordinary performance and his first acting role in what I think is one of the best performances of 2018.  His sad eyes and world-weary face belie an almost primal drive to right wrongs and seek justice.  He doesn’t take no for an answer, and faces up to bullies twice his age and size.

In a world where scheming adults trade children for money, and homeless young kids peddle goods to earn a living, Labaki appears to paint the lowest rungs of the working class, including illegal immigrants, as morally upright people who want to lead a simple, normal life, but are forced through sheer desperation to commit crimes, or sell their souls as it were, to the machinery of sociopolitics, where neither society nor the state seem to care.  Some of the film’s finest sequences are of Zain taking care of a toddler who is inadvertently left in his care.

Capernaum more or less pulls through admirably, and if one were to see it as an uncomplex if emotionally-charged story of a boy trying to make sense of his existence in an unforgiving world, it certainly works better than Labaki’s grander ambition to situate that very story in a flurry of third-world themes of poverty, immigration, identity and ‘chaos’. 

For the uninitiated, this is as good an introduction as any to a more accessible kind of Middle Eastern arthouse cinema.

Grade: A-



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