The reductive realism of Capernaum

According to the Gospels, in the beginning of Jesus Christ’s prophetic journey, he visited Capernaum, a small village on the Sea of Galilee, where he taught in the synagogue, healed the ill and performed an exorcism, among other miracles. When the townspeople still wouldn’t repent, he condemned Capernaum to eternal damnation (“You will be thrown down to hell!”), and so the name of the village has gone on to be used as a synonym for mayhem and confusion.

There is indeed no shortage of chaos in the world where Nadine Labaki’s Oscar-nominated Capernaum (2018) takes place. At times, however, it feels a little bit too chaotic.

The film opens with a sequence of its protagonist, Zain (Zain al-Rafeea), a bright and stubborn 12 year old, being led from a prison cell to a courtroom. We understand that he is serving a five-year sentence for stabbing a man and that he is suing his parents for giving birth to him. With this declaration, Labaki transports us to a rather lengthy flashback, where we follow the misadventures of Zain in the slums of Beirut.

Living in a tiny room with his parents and four siblings, Zain spends his time smoking cigarettes with other neighborhood boys, selling homemade juice on the street and hauling goods for the landlord’s corner shop. He finds respite in his conversations with his younger sister, Sahar, who has just had her period, to his dismay: He suspects that, now that she is a “woman,” their parents — who make ends meet by smuggling Tramadol into the prison, where their oldest son is held — will want to marry her off. When Zain discovers that there is indeed an arrangement to wed Sahar to the landlord in exchange for a few chickens and an extended lease, that is the last straw: He runs away, and the film’s events are set in motion.

It is actually pretty much impossible for a child like Zain to be able to reach out to a talk show host from within his confinement, and for the country’s judicial system to take his desire to sue his parents seriously. Also, the fact that we know where Zain will end up right from the beginning cancels out any element of suspense or surprise, and so one can’t help but feel, at times, that the film — with a runtime that exceeds two hours — becomes a little bit tedious. However, Capernaum still manages to power through on the shoulders of its sheer emotional power and charismatic characters.

Zain comes across Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian illegal immigrant who works as a cleaning woman and lives in a flimsy hut with her undocumented toddler, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) in one of Beirut’s rougher shantytowns. Zain and Rahil, both down on their luck, reach an agreement where he gets to live with her in exchange for taking care of her son while she’s at work every day. When Rahil gets arrested, however, Zain has to care for the child on his own, a horrid reality that Labaki skillfully portrays. The chaos reaches its peak as Zain wanders the streets, pulling the boy behind him in a cooking pot he’s trying to sell for scraps so he can buy them food. He dabbles in everything, from petty thievery to drug dealing and even human trafficking. This turn of events offers many moving moments, yet the emotional response they arouse is only fleeting.

Labaki is uncompromising in her depiction of the day-to-day struggles of her characters. This insistence, however, results in an almost linear succession of melodramatic events and reactions, and so important plot points — such as the tragedy that leads Zain to commit the crime for which he’s institutionalized — end up losing their impact. Because the misery in Capernaum is so abundant and in your face, the viewer eventually grows accustomed to it; it becomes nothing but a series of images that loses all essence and meaning. In contrast, one scene where Rahil weeps as she squeezes her breasts dry in the detention center, whispering for her child to forgive her, packs so much feeling in one strong visual (despite the distracting use of music). Had Labaki relied on such subtly expressive moments throughout the film, rather than straight-up melodrama, viewers would have found it much easier to empathize without barriers.

Throughout Capernaum, it’s the performances that keep us engaged. Directing non-professional actors in lead roles is a daunting task, yet Labaki pulls it off. Rafeea — a Syrian refugee living in Beirut — is magnificent as Zain. His performance is minimalistic, but his screen presence is anything but. With his melancholic gaze, irrepressible wit and subtle vulnerability, he catches the skeptical viewer off guard and compels us to continue following his journey, which we witness through the jagged movements of a handheld camera, speckled with extensive close-ups of the characters’ faces.

Labaki’s technique as she follows her poverty-stricken characters in an almost claustrophobic manner fits with the dramatic nature of the story, but fails to contextualize their struggle, leaving no room for any kind of critical analysis, on her part or the viewer’s. Her directorial approach perhaps harkens back to the style of Italian neorealism (in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves [1948], the protagonist cries “I curse the day I was born!” in one famous scene), and the choice of locations and extensive production design succeed in establishing a somewhat dystopian world, one that is a condensed version of the film’s actual setting. Yet Labaki is not entirely loyal to the “reality” she claims to depict. She chooses not to root the film too much in Beirut. There is no reference to the political context within which everything unfolds, or the sectarian tensions that permeate it, even though it is evident — to anyone who’s been to Beirut or has the slightest knowledge of Lebanon’s sociopolitical structure — that the very air of the city is heavy with the weight of such struggles; they are almost impossible to avoid.

While some might view the omission of the context as a merit, making Labaki’s story applicable to almost any Arab country grappling with extreme poverty and a massive refugee crisis (and therefore more relatable), it actually compromises Labaki’s credibility, and prompts one to question the statement behind her film. If no mention is made of the state or its role in the dire conditions within which the film’s protagonists live, are we to understand that Labaki places the entire blame on the poor themselves, simply for wanting to have children?

This is the note the film opens on, after all, and also the one on which it ends: Zain sues his parents for having him and begs them not to have any more children when he finds out his mother is pregnant yet again. The general question of whether it is moral to bring children into such a cruel world is indeed a valid one; antinatalism is a philosophy with a rapidly growing followership. But the film does not really examine the complexities of this position; rather, it comes off as an indictment of the reproductive habits of a particular class, with no insight or depth. And with Labaki casting herself as Zain’s lawyer, who stands up to his parents in court, she makes it inevitable for us to see her — the lawyer and the director — as the self-righteous bourgeoisie, critiquing the choices of the less-privileged echelons of society and simultaneously trying to “save” them from the consequences.

Hessen Hossam 

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