Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum begins with a shocking scene – a streetwise twelve year old Zain sues his parents for bringing him into this world. And although the retrospectives that follow indeed depict grim realities of his life, I constantly couldn’t shake off the feel of contrivance that haunted the entire narrative. Maybe because Zain’s attorney is played by Labaki herself in a rather awkward directorial cameo.
The film, distributed by Picturehouse in the UK, explores the underbelly of Beirut and various threats awaiting children in the Middle East. Despite its at times too overt sentimentality, the Lebanese film manages to portray the Dickensian hardships of a young boy in the region torn by political and economic crises. The physicality of the entire film is most clearly demonstrated by Labaki’s choice to have Zain constantly push or pull some objects through crowded streets, whether it be a gas tank, a skateboard with pots and pans on it, or a bin bag filled with goods stolen from a local shop. It’s a road movie, but of a much different kind. The journey itself is devoid of any joy, and the people encountered by young Zain are rarely any good souls waiting to look out for him.
“Even a ketchup bottle has a name. It has a production and expiry date” – Zain hears from one of the many villains he encounters during his escape from the family. He himself has a name, although sometimes chooses to hide it for safety. He does not have a “production” date though, as his parents never managed to get him a birth certificate. A doctor can only surmise his age, since the boy has lost all of his milk teeth. And the film implies that the protagonist could easily expire at any time given the many hazards. After his eleven year-old sister is married (or actually, sold) off to Assad, a wealthy shop owner and landlord, Zain decides he had enough of this life and leaves home and his parents.
One of the reasons Capernaum is so engaging emotionally is due to a simple directorial decision to shoot everything from the perspective of children. Therefore the camera is always positioned at child-height, to enhance Zain’s vulnerability. Like the protagonist, the viewer has often to look up at events or characters. This creates a simple power dynamic which reemphasises that children are physically weaker and the adults are more towering and scary. Wide-angle shots also highlight the claustrophobic and hectic nature of Beirut, as the characters are constantly framed by walls surrounding narrow streets. This is occasionally undercut by some drone shots which serve as a “breather” from the events, but also imply a more god-like, general perspective. Those scenes imply that Zain’s spoiled childhood is just one of numerous others that are being damaged at the same time.
Capernaum with its focus on children seems like a forgotten gem from Vittorio De Sica’s ouevre. Similarly to the classics of Italian Neorealism such as Sciuscia or Bicycle Thieves, Capernaum shows that dramas of children are always most touching. As the director has argued in an interview with “Sight and Sound”, “they say there’s around 218 million children around the world in child labour (…) We have to be aware that those children are very, very angry and this anger is going to translate into something one day”.
Although Labaki is right, and her film looks at the issues of Lebanese society from an important perspective, her focus on extracting as many tears from viewers’ eyes as possible was very distracting. I personally wasn’t too involved emotionally in the film, but judging by many sobs and cries coming from the audience I guess that a few others were.
Image source: IMDB