Lebanese actress and director Nadine Labaki’s third directorial feature, Capernaum, is a stirring and essential social-realist drama about lives trapped in abject poverty, featuring a superb central performance from Zain Alrafeea.
Labaki’s modest debut film Caramel, which played in the Un Certain Regard programme, back in 2007, was a low-key drama about a group of women hairdressers. The director then went big, turning her attention to religious intolerance, in 2010’s Where Do We Go Now? That one came off as facile and overly ambitious, whereas Capernaum is clearly her strongest film to date and makes for a generally powerful statement on human misery and grotesque inequality, though some third act creative decisions and maneuvers cause a wobble or two.
It begins with an almost Capra-esque scenario. A 12-year-old undocumented boy named Zain (Alrafeea) wants to sue his parents. Their crime? Giving him life. The foul-mouthed street urchin born in slum conditions so appalling it beggars belief, is standing before a judge pleading his case with the help of pro bono lawyer, Nadine (Labaki, in a small role). He then recounts his short life and everything that went wrong.
Hats off to cinematographer Christopher Aoun. The bird’s eye view shots of Lebanese slums look almost surrealistic, like something seen in a Max Ernst painting of a squalid, constricting dream cityscape. Nobody should be forced to live like this, but millions do – and without social security as a safety net – and it’s very obvious Labaki is appalled and had to do something as an artist. Her choice of action is in the best social-realist tradition: making a film that sings with humanity and empathy for those less fortunate, while drawing attention to the plight of people who aren’t living their lives, they’re surviving them.
Alrafeea is extraordinary as plucky and resourceful Zain. There’s an entire section in the middle of Capernaum when the lad is forced to look after a toddler (Treasure Bankole), who might yet share the Best Actor prize with Alrafeea. Pulling him around the cramped and rubbish-strewn streets and souks in a tin bowl tied to a skateboard, looking for food and water, his mother missing and presumed deported, as she’s an Ethiopian migrant without proper documentation, these moments touch upon true cinematic greatness and even at its most bleak and unbearably tragic, Zain’s anger, grit and determination shines through. He’s a little hero.
If only Labaki – in her push to give Zain a happy ending – didn’t resort to such cheesy tactics as melodramatic shouting, slow motion running, swelling orchestral strings and a turn of events that screams ‘deus ex machina’. But to go for a bleaker (more realistic) finale would have been too cruel, too hopeless and too disturbing. Zain and children like him deserve their happy ending and fresh start, Labaki will argue, and judging from her previous works, she’s no pessimist.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn