In Nadine Labaki’s powerful drama, a Beirut child sues his parents for giving birth to him – before ending up on the street caring for a stranger’s baby ince its premiere at Cannes last May, this heart-wrenching movie from Lebanese director Nadine Labaki has won prizes and golden opinions and is a nominee for best foreign language film at this weekend’s Oscars. It is the story of a Beirut street kid who has run away from his unhappy, abusive home. He is befriended by an Ethiopian woman working as a cleaner without legal papers and gets to stay with her in return for minding her baby while she is out at work. But when she is picked up by police, he has to head off back to the streets, taking the baby with him – and is confronted by some terrible choices. I was agnostic about this movie when I first saw it, and some of those doubts are still there on a second viewing.
There is a bit of button-pushing melodrama going on and the film is flawed by Labaki’s opening premise, which is silly, pointless and unconvincing. From the jail where he’s ended up, the kid supposedly sues his parents for giving birth to him. This has evidently been funded as a stunt by a TV current affairs show to draw attention to child poverty, but it is an outrageous stretch to believe it would be entertained for one moment by the legal system. And that’s setting aside the implausibility of this kid being allowed to make a lengthy (and free) telephone call to the TV station from prison in the first place. But the power and emotional force of the film mean you just have to set this flaw to one side.
There’s no doubt about it: the extended, improvised scenes of the boy and the baby on the streets are wonderfully performed and directed. Labaki even creates some sense memories of Chaplin’s The Kid and De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. There is passion and compassion here, and Labaki’s film brings home what poverty and desperation mean, and conversely what love and humanity mean. The title means “Chaos” and also alludes to the town on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus was supposed to have taught in the synagogue and healed the sick. The parallel between Jesus’s precocity and that of this film’s young hero is certainly ironic. The boy is Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) who is infuriated by the grotesque indignity and cruelty to which his parents have submitted as a result of their poverty – and which he has to endure as well.
They are making money smuggling opioid drugs into prison (where his elder brother is a convict). To Zain’s horror, his careworn mum Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad) and dad Selim (Fadi Yousef) are getting ready to take money from their exploitative landlord in return for handing over Zain’s 11-year-old sister Sahar (Cedra Izzam) to this man’s son as a child bride. In a rage, Zain runs away and encounters kindly Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). He also encounters the sinister businessman and entrepreneur Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh). What is so refreshing about Al Rafeea’s performance is that his kid is not a passive, simpering martyr. His Zain is furious, sweary and violent. He is always angrily shoving and punching and defiantly insulting people, especially his parents. Another sort of film would imply that his anger is a character flaw that has been movingly cured by his redemptive experience looking after baby Yonas. Rather magnificently, the film insists on the opposite. Looking after Yonas has only made Zain angrier, more intimately acquainted with poverty and injustice, more aware of the awful choices into which anyone can be forced by cold and hunger.
Capernaum is itself an angrier, tougher and funnier film than anything Labaki has made before, and the images of Yonas adrift with Zain in the pitiless streets are deeply affecting: visions of innocence and fragility and yet a transcendental sort of survival. Cynical Aspro calls the baby “a badass – like his mother”, and you can see how this heartless person finds it convenient to pretend everyone else is heartless as well. And yet there is something in what he is saying. Perhaps Yonas does look like a badass – a badass in embryo, anyway.
In the end, who and what are Zain and Yonas? Or Rahil? Or Souad and Selim? They must each answer a question put to Zain: where are your papers? “I need proof you’re a human being.” Statelessness, illegality: these are not just technical points. They are the bureaucratic mechanisms, powered by money, by which your humanity is affirmed or withheld. Capernaum is not a cry from the heart – but an angry shout.