Capernaum has the look and feel of a capital-I-important prestige picture. It is an ambitious, heartbreaking, impassioned, deeply angry tale, likely to strike a chord not only across the whole of the Middle East, but even possibly across the entire world. A sprawling treatise on the nature of family, society, and poverty, there is so simply so much for someone to like here. Yet, Capernaum is also uneven, maudlin, wildly indulgent, clichéd, and even rather problematic. Think of it as the new Slumdog Millionaire.
It starts in a courthouse, with the twelve-year old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) wishing to sue his parents for the sin of having him. Already serving a five-year sentence for a stabbing, he believes that all of his problems stem from simply being born. The story then flashes back to Zain hustling on the streets of Lebanon, picking up phony prescriptions for tramadol that his parents grind into drugs. Zain and his extensive family all live in a tiny apartment where the children all share the same bed, and there is no surety that there is enough food for everyone.
For young girls in the neighbourhood, their parents marry them off once they get their first period. Therefore, when Zain notices his sister is bleeding, he compassionately tries his best to prevent them from finding out. We see immediately just how street-smart the young boy is, stealing tampons from the shop he works at while skilfully avoiding the eyes of his elders. This combination of intelligence and empathy for other children is what makes Zain stand out, and one wonders just what led him to commit an attempted murder.
Eventually Zain’s plan fails, leading him to go on the run. He ends up staying with an Ethiopian woman named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who has voyaged to Lebanon illegally. She offers a place to stay in return for him looking after her infant son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), while she is at work or trying to sort our her affairs. Here Capernaum makes a brave step by dramatically switching to Rahil’s perspective. The filmmaking has an urgency here that was previously lacking, while the editing is propulsive and exciting, using montage excellently to show her desperately trying her best to get the right papers and make enough money to pay for a fake ID. Soon she is forced to take a long trip, and when she doesn’t come back, Zain and Yonas are left to fend for themselves.
This is ultimately what the dramatic pull of Capernaum boils down to — a twelve year-old boy lugging a one year-old baby around the crowded streets of Lebanon, trying to find enough food to last another day. There is nothing that pulls on the heartstrings more than a very cute baby, and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole is of the cutest babies in the history of cinema, delivering (if you can call it that) one of the strongest performances of the entire festival. This kind of baby is a director’s dream, spontaneously giggling or moving his hands in ways that can’t help but melt the hardest of hearts. This is the kind of baby that even wins a film some Oscars.
Yet, Capernaum can’t decide whether it wants to be a striking piece of neorealism or classic Oscar bait, oscillating wildly between slice-of-life naturalism and Slumdog Millionaire-style fantasies. With such a strong basic premise, the story keeps indulging itself when it should be unsparing. Every now and then, Labaki will pull away from eye-level in order to see just how populous the city really is, making for a broader critique of society at large. Done once, this technique is effective. Done multiple times, it feels self-congratulatory. The music also lays it on a little thick, telling us what to think when the images should simply be showing it for themselves. Labaki is an intelligent and intuitive director with a great eye for detail and impassioned storytelling, but here her maudlin indulgences consume what could have been a deeply affecting tale.
At two hours long, Capernaum wants to be an epic look at poverty and the immigrant experience in Lebanon, seen through both a child and an adult’s eyes. As such, the story would have benefited from tighter editing; it takes far too long to get to its main dramatic pull. Zain’s wanderings feel completely aimless until he meets Rahil, and had the movie arrived there sooner, it would have no doubt been a more memorable experience.
The idea that people who live in poverty should have no children is powerfully stated by the young boy, who is suing his parents so they stop bringing more people into the world whom they cannot provide for. Within this is a criticism of the core teachings of the Koran, which states that the key to a good and meaningful life is to have as many children as possible. While Capernaum tries its best to be compassionate towards all its characters — even rounding out the role of the parents significantly, and allowing them to have their own say — it still has the unintended effect of blaming poor people for what are structural problems in Lebanese society.
In the wrong hands, the message is that poor people don’t deserve to be mothers or fathers. With these problems obviously lying at the feet of the government itself for not providing adequate welfare, Capernaum will allow certain people to shift the conversation, making the movie not only rather unfair, but also potentially dangerous. It is ultimately an indictment of society that ends up perpetuating the stereotypes that made society so perilous for poor people in the first place. This gives Capernaum a feeling of hypocrisy, manipulation, and inauthenticity that it simply can’t shake off.
But hey, look how cute the baby is.