Capernaum poses one of the most pertinent, yet often unspoken questions of our time: do we have the right to have a child? Is the act of birth a cruel one when we can’t guarantee our children a safe, stable home environment? It’s a work that uses this question as a framing device, and then allows the story to speak for itself, the moral quandary constantly ringing in our heads.
It follows Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a twelve year old boy who has been put in prison for stabbing a man. He brings his parents into court, to sue them for giving birth to him. We then cut back to the events leading up to Zain’s imprisonment, following his life in a poverty-stricken Beirut after he runs away from home when his parents trade his eleven-year-old sister in marriage. He ends up moving in with an Ethiopian refugee, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), to help look after her child, an infant who she does not let outside for fear of the authorities taking him away. It’s a story that leaves little room for mirth, instead throwing you headfirst into a world where childhood is disregarded as unimportant, and one simply has to grow up without even understanding their own self.
‘Truly, it’s Zain Al Rafeea’s performance as the character of the same name that makes the film so startlingly real. It is with no exaggeration that I say this may be the finest child performance I’ve ever seen on screen’
The landscape of poverty hangs over the film like a canopy of rubble; the Beirut that these characters live in is a world of run-down buildings and dirt – the remarkable bird’s eye-opening shots, with the children running through it playing with swords, makes it seem like some sinister, dangerous playground. The way this lifestyle is treated, with Zain’s father stating that they are ‘insects’, creates an arresting atmosphere of pain and melancholy becoming the mundane and quotidian. These are people who, without registered papers, exist as essentially nothing, and act accordingly. There’s a moment where Zain’s father says if he was given the chance, he would be a better man than everyone in the court, and we are almost inclined to believe him. This is a cyclical trauma, and it’s Zain’s hope to stop it once and for all.
And truly, it’s Zain Al Rafeea’s performance as the character of the same name that makes the film so startlingly real. It is with no exaggeration that I say this may be the finest child performance I’ve ever seen on screen. He simultaneously manages to hold himself as a forceful, furious individual railing against the wrongs of his surroundings, whilst being achingly vulnerable and alone, holding on to the final semblances of his innocence. Seeing him have to look after a baby, playing with him like the child he is whilst at the same time having to take on the role of father, is heartbreaking, and Rafeea plays it with the precise blend of authority and purity needed. We really do believe he has the strength to stand up in a court of law and call out the injustice of a nation.
This courtroom conceit however, is both the film’s strength and its flaw. The cutting back to the courtroom is sparse, but does often feel like an interruption to Zain’s story, which works well enough on its own. The trial itself is also a rather fantastical idea, and jars when compared to the main body of the film’s Ken Loach-esque social realism. Despite being unconvinced by these sequences at times, by the end, I understood their presence. Though they could have been more artfully inserted around the main narrative, these are the only chances Zain gets to truly have a voice, something he’s nearly always deprived of elsewhere. Despite it appearing to be fantastical that such a court would be held, that’s surely director Nadine Labaki’s point – giving deprived children a voice shouldn’t be a fantasy.
The two hours of Capernaum make us realise how much we take our own childhoods for granted. To be robbed of one, to not even be given an identity in the eyes of the world, is a crime, and the courts of law judging it are just as guilty. Zain’s not just confronting his parents in that room, he’s confronting everyone on the jury. And even more so, he’s confronting us. It’s a painful experience, but one that is supremely powerful in its heavily implied pro-choice message, and interrogation of whether it’s ethically sound to have a child when you can’t support them. This is a film absolutely pivotal to our times, and a moving, sensitive addition to a very important cultural conversation.
With thanks to Exeter Picturehouse for the screening.