By Naseem Ally. ‘Capernaum’ translated in Arabic as chaos, is the perfect word to title this film. However, don’t get this misconstrued as a film that is all over the place and has no sense of direction with the plot. Frankly, it’s quite the opposite.
This film is beautiful in showing it’s ‘chaos’ and it has the credentials to back it up. Capernaum won the Cannes Jury Prize award for the best film at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Directed by the Lebanese actress Nadine Labaki, she has shone a light on the chaos, that poverty stricken street children face on a day to day basis.
Everything from child abuse, illegal immigration and simply looking for the next meal to it. I mean, this film puts everything into perspective and makes our first world problems seem so trivial. Capernaum follows a 12 year old boy named Zain played by the incredible Zain Al Rafeea.
Mind you, he is not a trained actor whatsoever. He was formerly a Syrian refugee. Nadine went for a neorealism approach and used real people living in the streets of Beirut, Lebanon. Zain, a tough and streetwise kid, who after running away from his parents decides to take them to court. Pay particular attention to this, as it’s also linked to a key incident involving his sister that will unravel later in the film.
What’s his reason for wanting to take his parents to court you ask? Being born.
The sheer disdain Zain develops for them in the film, will take you aback as an audience member and you will be able to see why he feels this way, being born in a world of poverty, abuse and essentially chaos. Starting with his struggle of being in a large family, living in a confined space in the shanty-towns of Beirut, having to resort to selling beetroot juice on the streets to help feed his family.
As far as his parents are concerned, school isn’t even in the question. We see glimpses of Zain looking for escapism living in this chaotic world, trying to actually live out a childhood instead of almost essentially being the man of the house at the tender age of 12. From the opening shots, we are introduced to Zain and his friends playing in abandoned buildings, puffing smoke rings and running a muck with makeshift toy guns made from slabs of wood and plastic bottles.
It’s as if they’re living vicariously through the action movie stars they’ve seen on the TV, having the time of their lives making millions. Instead, it’s far from it for Zain. During his escape from his family, he attempts to play house with a new mother figure he encounters over his various solo trips in Beirut, where he meets Tigest. An Ethiopian single mother who is living in Beirut illegally and is depending on a dodgy bloke named Aspro, to forge identification for her. A cleaner by night, we see her having to balance between working to make enough money to raise her son and his new found brother, in the form of Zain, whilst also having to avoid being caught by the authorities.
At this point Zain really comes into his element and matures even further than he already has, and starts to take on the mantle of an older brother for a baby he hardly knows. There’s a funny moment when Zain is asked why him and his ‘brother’ look so different from each other. It involves his mother’s pregnancy and her fondness for coffee. I mean this kid is something else! – he’s wise beyond his years and is literally fighting tooth and nail to look after himself and this baby. From fighting off advances from shady figures looking to have their way, walking for miles towards refugee camps attempting to get to Europe, to making a killing selling Tramadol shots in water bottles. I was thinking to myself this kid could give Al Pacino’s ‘Tony Montana’ a run for his money, with the amount of cash he was bringing in.
Speaking of Al Pacino, if Zain Al-Rafeea further pursues his brand new acting career, his future looks very bright and this performance puts him in good company. Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and the like better make way for this kid. At this point, I wouldn’t put it past him to have the potential to follow in the similar footsteps of a young Leonardo DiCaprio. His earliest performances in ‘What’s Eating Gilbert’ and ‘The Basketball Diaries’ come to mind. Zain’s whole journey over the duration of the film is superb, and he’s really carried it on his shoulders. He’s only twelve years old. Twelve!
However the surrogate mother to Zain, Tigest, played by Yordanos Shiferaw also did a magnificent job, and really played off him extremely well during their interactions. To think the majority of the cast aren’t trained actors. WOW. Please pay special attention to the baby in this film, Yonas, played by Boluwatife Treasure Bankole. If there ever was an Oscar award for best baby in a motion picture, he would be the first to win no doubt!
The way he bounces off Zain in the film, is almost too good to be true. You have to see it to believe it. I don’t know how Nadine was able to able to direct and pull this performance out of them.
Especially a baby, can you imagine…
‘Okay, I know your a baby, but I’m going to really need you to get into the scene and make your crying believable…AND…ACTION!’
Fantastic casting. At times Capernaum was difficult to watch, due to what felt like excessive scenes of abuse and quote unquote ‘poverty porn’. However, I think Nadine has intentionally tried to hammer home the abuse, neglect and poverty that faces many children around the world, as part of their daily lives. It’s an uncomfortable reality to accept due to the high standard quality of life we are used to, but I think generally she has captured this really well.
What more can I say…
Capernaum – Cannes Jury Prize Winner?
Yes, go and watch it – it’s brilliant!
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