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Review: Oscar nominated Capernaum

James Hudson reviews the winner of the 2018 Grand Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics


Director:Nadine Labaki

Starring: Zain al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole

“Capernaum” is a moving and charming tale of the underprivilege and forgotten children in Lebanon. The emotional strength of “Capernaum” rests on its duality: It is shot with neorealist quality, but we see the world, and all its darkness, through the eyes of Zain (Zain al Rafeea), who is full of tough charm and childhood innocence which distils much of the horrors that are around him. A modern-day Dickensian tale “Capernaum” packs a raw emotional punch and although many dark topics are alluded to, the film remains full of life and wonder.

The story follows the wonderings of 12-year-old Zain - approximately, as his parents have no birth certificate - who has been born into a life of poverty and hardship on the streets of Beirut. Receiving no real care from his parents, who are focussed on securing their tenancy, the only relationship which harbours any warmth for Zain is his 11-year-old sister, Schar. Subsequently, Schar is married off by her parents to the creepy landlord’s son, who Zain runs street errands for, presumably as a substitute for rent.

Zain, being wiser-beyond his years, decides to go it alone and leaves his parents. On arriving at a new town Zain meets and becomes friends with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her toddler son Jonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). Rahil is working using illegal documentation and Jonas is also undocumented; Zain has met more forgotten people, or in the case of Jonas, doesn’t exist in the eyes of the authorities. at an amusement park who is hiding a son from the authorities and her work. Initially, Zain looks after Jonas the while Rahil goes to work as a cleaner. When she disappears Zain effectively becomes Jonas’s guardian; he searches the Rahin and cares for Jonas using his street-know-how. The bond between Zain and Jonas is the most touching element of the film; both children navigating a city full of dangers and darkness which is tragic and comically uplifting; Jonas being dragged around in a   metal pot attached to a skateboard while Zain sells drugs to by food is the clearest example of this.

Though, for all the heart-wrenching Dickensian charm of Zain and Jonas wanderings, Nadine Labaki the director decision to intersect the story with a present-day court where Zain is suing his parents detaches us from the human story of Zain. It is an unnecessary show of explicit sentiment from the director, who also plays Zain’s lawyer, and rather than leaving the film with feelings of empathy, and questions, the only feeling that remains at the end of the film is that of disappointment. In asking the question, if a child such as Zain or Jonas could speak so explicitly through the courtroom scene, where Zain performs a monologue of the wrongs he has faced it takes away from the tone of the story. The audience already understands the wrongs and injustices Zain and Jonas have face, they do not need to be told.  

That said, the impact of this film is tremendous; it rehumanises and specifies the stories we read and watch on the news of children who find themselves in dire circumstances. The film is full of charm and raw emotional power, mainly stemming from Zain’s precocious charm. The fact that the casting process sought to find actors who have had similar circumstances the characters serves as a reminder that the darkness in the film exists. Zain is being played by a Syrian refugee with no previous acting experience. Despite its flaws, “Capernaum” is a Contemporary Dickensian tale which is brutal, charming, and a prescient reminder of the great misfortunes and ill-treatment many children face.

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