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Updated: Nov 21, 2020

Released 2018. Director: Nadine Labaki

ZAIN DOESN'T KNOW WHEN HE WAS BORN. HE'S NEVER HAD a birth certificate but he thinks he’s 12. Along with his parents and half a dozen younger siblings, they live hand to mouth in a cramped apartment unit.

None of the children goes to school. Sometimes they sell drinks by the road to passersby. Sometimes they sell drugs.

Capernaum takes us to the streets of Beirut, into the lives of people who live on the margin in poverty, exploited, shoved, neglected, sometimes by their own family. But this particular child is not taking life lying down. In the opening minutes of the film we see Zain in court, facing a judge and saying without hesitation he’s suing his parents for giving birth to him.

In flashbacks director Nadine Labaki takes us through Zain’s life in the weeks leading to this day. These are scenes of a childhood that would scar anyone. Heartbreaking in its realism, compassionate in its depiction of the fighting spirit in this scrawny, under-nourished boy whose tired expression belies his tenacity to survive.

Zain runs away from home in resolute anger after failing to stop his parents from forcibly bundling away his 11-year-old sister Sahar to marry the much older Assaad, their landlord. Zain catches a bus and ends up in another part of the city, wonders into an amusement park and befriends a cleaning lady Rahil.

An undocumented migrant from Ethiopia, Rahil takes Zain in to live with her and her toddler son Yonas in their tiny shack. Zain looks after the little one while Rahil goes to work, the two becoming inseparable. Zain feeds, changes nappies, entertains and comforts Yonas in the absence of his mother.

With a cast of non-professional actors, the plight of the struggling poor without legal status is conveyed with an empathetic emotional pull. Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee at the time of filming, gives a phenomenal performance. The character Zain is essentially a version of himself and the boy relates his story with such a level of authenticity and honesty it’s frankly staggering. Forced by circumstances to be an adult, this boy digs deep within himself to find strength in a world that has shown him very little love. Zain’s rapport with Yonas is amazing to witness, the toddler’s instinctive trust and affection for the lost boy is something precious no filmmaker can manufacture.

As Zain’s life entwines with that of Rahil’s, we see a wider picture of struggle and impoverishment. Adult, child, toddler, their vulnerability play into the hands of people smugglers. Labaki wants us to ponder questions on parent-child relationship. Zain’s parents testify in court, fighting back tears as they justify themselves. Zain, serving a five-year sentence for the stabbing of Assaad who he blames for the death of Sahar, sees no remorse from his parents. Despite their inability to provide for the family, Zain’s mother tells him she’s pregnant again. This pushes Zain to take the extreme step in suing his parents for bringing him into this world.

Through the eyes of a child, Capernaum is a compelling look at marginalised lives in desperate situations. And through the mind of a child, it dares to ask some tough questions about parental responsibilities.

Click the image above to view trailer. New window will open.


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