Nadine Labaki, 2018,
This is the tale of Zane (Zane Al Rafeea), who is apparently around twelve or thirteen (they can’t quite tell). Zain has a tough life, struggling to exude masculine confidence and dominance over the surrounding chaos of his family and the outside world, all whilst looking younger than his age. When homelife becomes unbearable – like Zvyagintsev’s ‘Loveless’, the parents are too obsessed with their own misery to impart real affection to their kids – he takes to the streets and strikes up an unlikely babysitting job with illegal immigrant Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw).
Labaki directs with her focus always on her subjects, although there a couple of occasions that it descends into annoying blurry and unintelligible shaky-cam, or there will be a breath-taking birds-eye view of Beruit. Her husband produced, giving her a freedom from studio demands. Mostly it has the naturalistic, quasi-documentary feel that many bildungsroman focusing on poverty utilises (‘Pixote’, ‘Kes’, for example) rather than the magic-realism trend (‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ comes to mind). Robbie Collins says,
“…Capernaum is closer in both texture and spirit to the Brazilian crime epic City of God: it teems with the same excitement and danger as Fernando Meirelles’s film. The sensation of being right there on the ground stems from the nimble camerawork, which darts after Zain through the city’s markets and slums, and also the incidental colour vividly woven through the story itself.”
There are plenty of tentpoles where it could hang its drama upon, but even the courtroom framework where Zane is suing his parents dissipates once the characters speak their piece. It’s the kind of conceit that promises the most tabloid of structures and narrative, but the verdict is not the point. Many moments that could have made for high-drama are played out off-screen to allow the sorrowful struggle of the desperate and disenfranchised to play out mostly unruffled by cruder demands of narratives. The film doesn’t want for emotive and heart-tugging moments, but they’re as clear-headed as they are manipulative. It also navigates around something more lurid and grimmer (I’m thinking of ‘The Golden Dream’ and ‘Helos’ (both excellent)): for example, the sequence where Zain is trying to sell to various groups on the street and often getting beaten up is delivered as a montage rather than dwelt upon. In this way, it retains understatement whilst trawling through its tragedies and absurdities.
In a world of mostly belligerent and manipulative adults, Rahil provides empathy and softness. You will wonder that the toddler playing her baby (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) seems to be giving as much of an affecting performance as the adults (which is evidence of masterful editng). Zain Al Refeea’s look of constant resolve and defiance is the film’s guiding force, charging forward, until it becomes a mask for an irreparably hurt kid. Anyone familiar with the tricks of these things knows it is likely to culminate in Zain finally smiling as he has spent the entire film morose and never cracking one – even during the somewhat hilarious encounters with “Cockroach-man” – but even when it comes, there is a moment just before when you doubt if he can even achieve it.