Film & Television

‘Capernaum’: Sheer Heartbreak
in the Streets of Beirut

Imagine young Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire, but without the improbable million-dollar ending. Or Saroo in Lion, but without the nice Australian couple who adopt him. Or Pip without his Great Expectations. Or Oliver Twist without his repentant and conveniently wealthy grandfather. Imagine the most pathetic street urchin you’ve ever come across on the screen or the page, and then imagine that his situation is exponentially worse. Because as far as society is concerned, he doesn’t even exist.

As heartbreaking as that sounds, Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum is more so. Calling it a “good film” seems incongruous, given the tragic subject matter. But other words come to mind: wondrous, stunning, strangely and irrationally beautiful.

Capernaum is Lebanese director Labaki’s third film. Her first, Caramel (2007), was a romantic comedy about the lives and loves of five women who meet regularly in a Beirut beauty parlor. It was a Directors Fortnight Selection at Cannes and was Lebanon’s official submission to that year’s Academy Awards. Her second film, Where Do We Go Now? (2011), was a musical about a remote Lebanese village peacefully inhabited by Christians and Muslims until the tensions of the outside world interfere. It was also featured at Cannes and officially submitted to the Academy Awards. In each case, Labaki had a major role in the film, as well as directing, and writing or co-writing the screenplay.

For Capernaum, which loosely translates to “chaos” in French, Labaki continues to examine life in contemporary Lebanon, but through a much darker lens.

The film begins with a small boy, Zain, possibly 12-years old — no one’s really sure because his parents have forgotten and never registered his birth — being brought into court in handcuffs. Although he’s been imprisoned for a violent crime, he’s there today as the plaintiff. He is suing his parents. “For what?” asks the judge.

“For giving me life.”

This isn’t some “True Hollywood Story” of a precocious child suing for emancipation. Zain earnestly wants his parents to be punished for years of neglect and abuse. He also wants the court to assure that they won’t have any more children. Court scenes, which continue throughout the film, are interspersed with flashbacks. And the multi-talented Labaki appears again in Capernaum, but in a smaller supporting role, as Zain’s lawyer. This is his story, not hers.

Zain and his parents, Souad and Selim, live in a squalid apartment with several other children, ranging from 11-year old Sahar (Zain’s sister and closest friend) to the toddler who is chained to a piece of furniture to keep her (him?) out of trouble. And there is certainly plenty of trouble. Souad sends Zain to local pharmacies with forged prescriptions for Tramadol. He is a convincing and easy liar: “My mother sent me; she just had stomach surgery and can’t come . . .” Souad then pounds the drug into powder, adds hot water, and enlisting her children’s help, soaks clothing in the drug-infused liquid. Clothes are hung to dry, then brought to the local prison, where a relative receives them and sells them. Once the clothes are rinsed, inmates can ingest the drug with the rinse water.

Zain also works at a local grocery store, whose owner sends Sahar love tokens in the form of ramen noodles and licorice. Zain worries that his parents will sell Sahar to the grocer (whose father is Zain’s family’s landlord), so he tries to help her escape. He is minutes too late, and one of the most chilling scenes of the film includes Selim carrying his pleading daughter over his shoulders like a sack of rice while Souad threatens and beats Zain for interfering.

Zain, who is particularly foul-mouthed, curses his family and leaves. His journey takes him to a decrepit amusement park (the park’s greeter is an old man dressed as a makeshift superhero, “cockroach man”). There Zain meets Rahil, an undocumented immigrant from Ethiopia, and her infant son Yonas. The three form a family of sorts, with Zain taking on childcare responsibilities while Rahil works. Although the situation is by no means comfortable — they live in filthy rooms in a pop-up slum, have little to eat, and Rahil lives in constant fear of discovery and deportation — the long days with Yonas are probably the safest Zain has ever known. And Rahil’s tenderness, toward both her baby and their young visitor, is as close to the natural affection of a parent as Zain has ever seen.

One day, Rahil does not return from work. (Unbeknownst to Zain, she has been rounded up with other illegal workers and sent to prison.) Zain must now fend for Yonas as well as himself in a world that ignores homeless children on the street and where even those who promise help have hidden and inhuman agendas. A series of events unfold, including acts of sheer survival and desperation. But, while I can’t promise a happy ending by anyone’s measure, there are at least brief moments of humanity and redemption at the movie’s end.

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