Capernaum is about two hours of near unrelenting bleakness, but it’s the kind of bleakness that’s also a mostly intelligent indictment of just how we all let it come to this. The opening scene is hard enough, as we see a preteen boy undergoing an examination as officials try to guess his age. Then the boy, Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is led out in handcuffs to a courtroom, where he says he wants to sue his parents for allowing him to be born.
Just how does a 12-year-old boy get to this state? Capernaum then flashes back to the events that paved the way. It’s about as heartbreaking as you’d expect, full of deep empathy for everyone involved. It condemns many of the players for their actions, but the film also forces us to understand them by showing the harshness of their world in Lebanon, where they’re just barely able to living.
The catalyst for the tragedy to come is Zain’s sister Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam) getting her period. Zain and Sahar try to hide it, as Zain guesses that once their parents find out, Sahar will be married off to the food seller, a much older man who has already been engaging in a kind of courtship with her. And as it turns out, Zain’s surmise is quite prescient. After their parents discover Sahar’s secret, they begin marriage negotiations while Zain makes plans for them to run away together, only for Sahar to be forcibly removed from the household by their mother and father and taken to her new husband. Zain then flees as well, finding himself in a kind of amusement park where he’s taken in by an undocumented single mother named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who is hiding the fact that she has a son named Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), fearing discovery will mean separation and deportation.
At first, Zain seems to have discovered a kind of safe haven. Rahil is kind to him, and Zain watches her toddler son while she’s at work, quickly bonding with him. But his fragile sense of safety is shattered when Rahil suddenly disappears, having been arrested by the authorities for not having papers, and Zain and Yonas are left to fend for themselves as best as they can. Or rather, Zain tries to care for Yonas as best he can, only to fall further and further despite his efforts to pull them both back from the brink.
On their journey to survive, they also meet other people on the margins, benevolent and not so much. But Zain and Yonas are hemmed in by a system in which a life without papers is a kind of living death. Some have called Capernaum another example of poverty porn, and there is some truth to it in the unrelenting pressures Zain faces, which grind him down so much he wants to punish his parents for giving him life. However, the film doesn’t seem to call for our pity so much as our compassion.
The life Capernaum depicts is brutal, but there are few caricatures in it. Rahil, Zain’s parents, and even Sahar’s would-be husband are depicted with an understanding that holds them accountable while allowing us to see why their actions seemed feasible in the first place. Sahar’s family saw her forced marriage as a way for her to have a better life, and the man they practically sold her to pointed out that his own mother-in-law married at that age. He too thought it was normal to take an 11-year-old bride.
Director Nadine Labaki also made a very wise decision to cast mostly non-professionals actors to play versions of themselves. It goes a long way towards lending more of a truth, and even legitimacy to the film, even when it risks veering into overwrought territory. Zain Al Rafeea is such a powerfully charismatic lead it becomes mostly feasible that he could fight, negotiate, and manipulate, and bond with the various adults around him as he tries so hard to be kind in a world that seems determined to beat his best instincts out of him. Capernaum may be a flawed portrait of the voiceless masses whose daily lives mock all the lofty ideals of the state it portrays, but its rallying cry demands to be heard nonetheless.