Capharnaüm: A relentless and powerful portrait of unpeople

by James Robins / 04 February, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - capharnaum movie review

An Oscar-nominated Lebanese drama about a runaway suing his parents burns with anger.

Seething with unalloyed rage and bristling with indignation, Capharnaüm is perhaps the most relentless film I have seen. This Cannes Jury Prize-winning, Foreign Film Oscar-nominated tale from Lebanon is a two-hour howl, confrontational and unforgiving.

At its core is a sickly, unsmiling boy named Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea). A doctor has to guess his age: perhaps 12, though he has no birth certificate. He is presented in cuffs to an austere courtroom. His parents eye him warily. He is suing them. “Why?”, the judge asks. “Because,” Zain replies in a meek but steady voice, “I was born.”

What follows is Zain’s indictment, his charge sheet against his mother and father, all told in a long hurtling flashback: chaotic and desolate poverty in Beirut, back-breaking work for little pay, upwards of a half-dozen siblings despite their desperate conditions, the petty drug-dealing and grifting. Worst of all, his beloved 11-year-old sister was married off to a seedy shopkeeper for a few chickens.

Zain is an Oliver Twist with no song to sing, no Fagin to rescue him. We follow his lonely flight into the grit and gutters of streets and slums; his encounter with an undocumented Ethiopian woman named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her infant son. There will be further neglect and further betrayal.

From this bewildering frenzy, the film’s point emerges steadily into view. Capharnaüm is a portrait of unpeople: the modern phenomenon of those who exist at the far edges of society without official papers or identification, in essence stateless, made into frantic migrants by war (Al Rafeea himself is a Syrian refugee), by terror, by the endless grind of labour. They are considered beneath regard, without rights, corralled mercilessly from scummy camp to filthy cage, wire fence to border wall, objects of demonisation and scorn.

But from hell there rises an innate and irrepressible dignity, a humour and a determination to be more than waste. This is where Capharnaüm’s confrontational power truly lies. For every moment of unflinching realism, director Nadine Labaki (Where Do We Go Now?) has a moment of unflinching empathy – as we should, too, even for Zain’s parents. “If I had a choice,” his father tells the court, “I’d be a better man than all of you.”

Labaki makes a pointed search for the numinous and the humane, and finds it in the eyes of a 12-year-old boy who has nothing but his wits and an instinctive will to be loved.

IN CINEMAS FROM FEBRUARY 7

★★★★★

Video: Madman Films

This article was first published in the February 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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