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Festival de Cannes 72 Countdown: Capharnaüm / Capernaum, 2018

We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.

Capharnaüm / Capernaum, 2018

Prix du Jury – Nadine Labaki

Prix du Jury Œcuménique

I know we have become a much more refined bunch of film critic snobs over the years. But I take objection to some of the flimsy criticisms of Capernaum. There are not many, and mostly, the Lebanese film has been highly praised.

But even a handful of the very positive write-ups of Nadine Labaki‘s latest, embellish their text with somewhat unfounded gripes. The ridiculously paper-thin term of ‘poverty porn’; that the film is way too long; some of the dramatic elements are cautiously manipulative. Not bad review territory, but perhaps some better check themselves.


The critical acclaim of Capernaum, as well as numerous awards won across the globe, neither shield nor excuse such lazy, untempered observations. The film was also the Lebanese selection for Best Foreign Language Film at the recent Academy Awards – it did not win of course. And Nadine Labaki and co. scooped the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. The 15-minute standing ovation at the screening’s close was a hefty hair-ruffle, too.

“Capernaum is a astringently different beast in terms of tone and weight.”

Labaki, of course, returned to Cannes after Caramel (2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (2011), perhaps much more warming depictions of woman and their everyday plights and pleasures. Caramel was a glossy, often glowing film, beautifully shot. But those social and personal issues in Lebonan were still there. Struggles still shining brighter than many of us living comfortably in our developed worlds can fully fathom. If you have become accustomed to Labaki’s impassioned, crafty storytelling, you might find you get to have your cake and eat it.

Capernaum is a astringently different beast in terms of tone and weight. Labaki has amped up the energy, the grit, the relevance, and the impact to the gut. There’s a deftly charm in Capernaum, though. Not a jolly affair, for sure, but the resilient, heavy drama taps into the love for life and the ambitious nature of humans – in this case, children.

Is that was critics were alluding too? They wanted a heavy-as-bricks urban poverty documentary, for which they could call too bleak, instead? Dare I say it, does the fact there is a woman behind the camera make those tone-deaf nitpicks more free-flowing?

“Heavy drama taps into the love for life and the ambitious nature of humans.”

The fact is, as tampering with our heartstrings goes, Capernaum portrays a down-trodden, bare-bones environment complete with those little glimmers of hope life brings. It’s a reality many of us comprehend, if we have not even lived it to this extreme. Capernaum balances, in a rather difficult, empowering watch, the disturbing truths of illegal immigration, neglected children, harsh living conditions of life in small town Beirut.

At the center of the extraordinary tale, is Zain, a boy of about 12 (he is not quite sure himself), incarcarated for committing a violent act. Except, his appearance in the courtroom is for something else. It seems he is suing his parents for, well, giving birth to him. And those words spoken from the mouth of a child, one who has glistens of pain and resentment in his eyes, is a poignant set-up for the film’s harrowing, enlightening journey.


Zain is played by actual Syrian refugee, Zain Al Rafeea, which certainly brings some hardship experience to the role. Zain doesn’t even have a birth certificate as his parents, who have numerous children roaming about, couldn’t afford such documentation. Hardly an education to be seen, Zain is handed out to do various odd jobs, and to help his mother smuggle medication into the prison for her brother.

“The performance by both kids is immeasurably engulfing.”

Earning the mantra of most-responsible, Zain is motivated by his protective relationship with his 11-year-old sister, Sahar (Cedra Izzam). Their bond is like gold dust, a cherished thing indeed. Zain fears for Sahar, when she starts menstruating, signalling a potential danger for her being sold off to be married. I shiver again just at the thought of it. When it happens, Zain’s world takes an even greater, grotesque turn.

It’s heartbreaking to watch him flip out, desperately running after Sahar, as she is flung on a motorcycle and carted off. Instinctively, at the end of his tether, Zain flees, leaving his family behind. He is soon befriended by Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian immigrant with a one-year-old son, Yonas (actually played by baby girl, Boluwatife Treasure Bankoler). Zain finds himself cared for in a way he is not used to, and takes to babysitting Yonas while Rahil goes to work.


The companionship we witness on-screen between Zain and Yonas is just wonderful, in both the light and heavy moments. Zain is street-wise, no doubt about it, if a bit of a potty-mouth. He runs on plucky fuel, bitter and distraught by his little life, but still remains resourceful and spirited. The performance by both kids is immeasurably engulfing.

“Capernaum is a powerful motion picture experience, without over-selling the gloom or manufacturing it for the good of the viewing public.”

Baby Bankoler delivers so much charm and innocence, you won’t remember a more compelling screen toddler. Zain Al Rafeea matches gloomy eyes and a worn-out face, with a kind of determined outlook. Givng the character a real sense of responsibility and strength. He will not be crushed, stands up to those much bigger than he is, and gives us an unforgettable cinematic underdog. One of the great child performances, not just of the year, but of all-time.

Nadine Labaki’s eye for such impoverished children and human misery and rancid inequality, stirs the soul. No matter what your sensitivity threshold. The film-maker executes a bold statement on humanity, with all its dark corners and rough edges.

Capernaum is a powerful motion picture experience. Without over-selling the gloom or manufacturing it for the good of the viewing public. And with it, moments of whimsy. The old man in a tatty Spider-Man suit on the bus; Zain enamored by the rides of the amusement park; the kids selling juice on the street to make a bit of money.

“Capernaum is bordering on greatness.”

Labaki is clearly engrossed in the plight of children in her country, deeply immersed in the troubled, harsh life on the streets. In one brief moment, Labaki, who plays Zain’s lawyer, has tears of heartbreak in her eyes as her character asks why a parent would treat their child so. I wondered if those were actually Labaki’s true emotions filtering through. Capernaum is that moving, especially when it hits you time and time again how tormenting this all is.


Christopher Aoun’s cinematography is appropriately marvelous, too. There’s a sense of unease in the movement and the framing. And some of the bleakly picturesque shots of the shabby streets and squalors are surreally enticing. The bird’s eye views of Lebanon are particularly stunning.

Capernaum is bordering on greatness. This reviewer needed the smile at the end; the drips of hope; the compassionate mode of story-telling; the blatant understanding of the rotten sides of our world. A judgmental world it seems. Nadine Labaki has crafted a mesmerising, depressing, honest film. A compulsory one for our own aesthetic of cinema, but also for our global education. An overwhelming film, for which we all should embrace.


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