Capernaum (“Chaos”) is a brilliant and timely piece of cinema that displays the best and worst of humanity while showing one’s level of commitment can determine their destiny. Those two factors can also be weighed in the outcome of this film, as director Nadine Labaki and her team won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. As a cinephile, you’ll want to keep this title on your radar as it’s in the Oscar® conversation for “Best Foreign Language Film of the Year.”
Capernaum follows a young boy named Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a brave, attentive, street-smart kid who wants to escape his parents clutches more than anything. Zain is living a reality that many in the West could never imagine. He is practically homeless, living in a rundown apartment with insufficient space at his parent’s behest in Lebanon. While their quarters come at no financial cost, the parents know that inevitably, there will be a price to pay.
The only reason the family is able to exist, even in this current condition, is because of Assaad (Nour El Husseini), a man who owns the corner market where the kids work to help pay off the debt of living in one of his units.
Now it’s no secret that outside of the Western Hemisphere child brides are not only acceptable but encouraged in many places. Although Zain (an immigrant), who doesn’t even know his own age, knows that his wonderful sister Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam) could succumb to such a fate at any moment. So once he notices her period, his guard went up immediately and changed their path to the corner store (among other things) as to not be seen.
If there was ever a story about fight, grit, and the human spirit, there’s no need to look any further than our pre-pubescent little hero. A boy with no identification, no photos, and no idea of his age, was able to survive on his own by instincts and grit. He even used his adorable face (matched with tattered clothing) to finesse his way into another home in exchange for looking after a baby. Imagine that; a baby looking after a baby.
The young lady in question was Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian immigrant living in hiding because she too does not have papers, nor does she have money to renew her work permit. So in exchange for caring for her baby Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) Zain is given a place to stay. While standing as a tight tin-quarter, it’s an upgrade from where Yonas was staying beforehand (locked in a bathroom stall during Rahil’s shift at a carnival).
The commonality that exists with all the characters is their hope and desire for a better life. Rahil paid for a fake identity and permit just so she could work a low-wage job to afford the bare minimum for her and her son. Zain fled his family in search of a better life than the one he was living. Assuming his age at somewhere between 10 and 12, he was smart enough to travel to different cities by bus (sometimes by foot), selling everything from pots, water tanks, and even shots of Tramadol (a prescription pain medication) to get by.
When Rahil, whose fake identification name is “Tigest”, doesn’t return home after leaving to find work, Zain is forced to do what he has to do to now take care of himself and a baby. Tired, dejected, and hungry, he never gives up and makes a way when one doesn’t seem possible. Time and time again, he rises to the occasion with his pure heart and foul mouth. He’s kind enough to attract attention from outsiders when he needs help but is mature enough to exercise discernment.
The bulk of the film is one long flashback. It begins in court where Zain sits confidently, ready to tell the judge he’s suing his parents “for being born.” His message was simple: “Parents who are poor and in no condition to be taking care of children shouldn’t be able to have children.” His voice was a rally-cry for the millions of children just like him, wondering why they continue to have children when living in such atrocious conditions. To his point, when his parents appeared in court his mother was pregnant again, to Zain’s chagrin.
Zain did not let his environment, lack of food, lack of education, or lack of resources stop him from doing everything he wanted to do. If there was ever an example of determination, this boy is it. That is why I can proudly give Capernaum a 9.5 out of 10. I truly hope this film wins the Oscar® it deserves. Using a cast of immigrants to tell an immigrant tale would seem too much for Hollywood, but in reality, this common sense approach paid off in what culminated to be the most beautiful film shown through the youngest of lenses.
*If you’re in Atlanta the film can be seen exclusively at the Tara Theatre.