Following the plight of a young boy who rejects his parents, Nadine Labaki presents a gripping film of remarkable social-realism that can’t help but give in to its thirst for people’s tears.
Actor and director Nadine Labaki has recently made history, being the first Lebanese woman in the running for an Academy award in the Best Foreign Language Film category with her latest title, CAPERNAUM. The film premiered at Cannes, where it mesmerised the public with its calibrated teary plot but still lost the Palme d’Or to Kore-eda’s masterpiece, SHOPLIFTERS. Unfolding as the main character’s retelling in court of his desperate attempts at freeing himself from his loathed parents, CAPERNAUM is a social wake-up call for a short-sighted country where both men and women are slaves to a set-in-stone patriarchal narrative.
Labaki’s attention is predominantly focused on young Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) and his endless descent into a hell of negligence, poverty, and despair. Sometimes, though, she offers glimpses of Zain’s parents’ stories, which feel more like a backstory than a fertile and intriguing trail to follow. Although the film is overtly conceived as a premature coming of age story, where the protagonist must face antagonists in order to grow and learn how cruel and unfair the world could be, there’s not much space left for further exploration of the greater dynamics behind Zain’s familial circumstances. Much as his parents’ behaviour is utterly unacceptable in the eyes of western society, the film’s perspective appears to exploit the Lebanese cultural and social crisis, boiling everything down to a tear-jerking plot and some watered down eugenics-like remarks.
On the bright side, Labaki seems to have done her research on neorealistic themes and aesthetics. Aerial shots of the Beirut slums, paired with tracking shots following Zain in the busy streets of the city, add to the grim story of a kid way too young to go up against a rotten society; and the reality of those African immigrants who try to eke out a living in Lebanon. A single mother living in a shack and working several jobs to pay for her forged ID, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) incarnates their hopes for a better future and their tragic craving for acceptance. In CAPERNAUM’s narrative, it’s clear that Rahil must play the good, self-sacrificing, generous mother, who doesn’t hesitate to welcome Zain in her home, although she’s already struggling to feed her own child. Her poignant storyline deeply resonates with our consciences. So much so, in fact, it’s clear that Labaki is deliberately going after our guilt as passive observers of the many inadequate responses to the current migration crisis, we viewers cannot be deaf to such a heartbreaking spectacle.
As it’s expected that the film will bring tears to our eyes, it’s also rather expected that as soon as we walk away from the cinema we promptly distance ourselves from the story depicted – our fine tastes pleased by the deft camerawork and the commendable cinematography, our consciences soothed by realising we can still empathise with other people’s sorrows. Overall, an exquisite catharsis.