Capernaum – Spoiler-Free Movie Review

It was just a few weeks ago that I was reviewing one of the nominees in this year’s crop of Best Foreign Language Film category, largely having to do with childhood poverty, called Shoplifters. Well, here we go again, as we’re getting another nominee in the Best Foreign Language Film category, having entirely to do with childhood poverty, called Capernaum. And if you remember my review for Shoplifters, and how much I applauded it, I’ll just get this out of the way right now and say Capernaum isn’t as good. But it’s damn, damn close. This one comes from Lebanon, and is written and directed by Nadine Labaki, whom I almost want to handwrite personally and praise or criticize or I don’t know for making me feel so many things when I really didn’t expect it. I jest, of course, but there’s really only a handful of films a year that actually get to the core of my being and wrings it dry like a freaking washcloth. I don’t cry in movies – unless it’s the 2006 Adam Sandler comedy Click – but if I did, I’d have cried in this one. Usually I’d call something like this – which is in essence an endless nightmare for the protagonist – manipulative, but when it’s so authentic and delicately rendered, I can’t help but feel like it’s earned it. Anyway, I’m fighting the need to overstuff this introductory paragraph, so I’m just going to cut it short now.

Set in the Lebanese city of Beirut, Capernaum follows the plight of twelve-year-old – maybe – Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a boy living in a crowded, lower-class household with his many siblings and parents. Uneducated, he spends his days picking up odd jobs around the city, particularly for the operator of a nearby convenience store, Assadd (Nour el Husseini), who possesses an uncomfortable infatuation with Zain’s younger sister Sahar (Cedra Izzam). When their parents opt to give away Sahar’s hand in marriage to Assadd against her will as a way to ease their burden, Zain lashes out, and abandons his family for good. Soon thereafter, he meets single mother and Ethiopian refugee Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who is forced to secretly carry her unofficial infant son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) with her from job to job as she scrapes together a living. Rahil and Zain strike up a deal whereby Zain keeps an eye on Yonas in Rahil’s ramshackle house while she works, in exchange for room and board. However, when Rahil is detained and fails to return home, Zain is forced to go out into the world with Yonas and support them both, all in the hopes of one day leaving Beirut and becoming official people.

Upon doing some research for this review, I learned that a great portion of the actors featured were not trained prior to their casting. I had suspected as much, as many a director with this kind of project would be inclined to make it as authentic as possible. And for as many films as I’ve seen employ this tactic, I’ve never seen one as affective at it as Capernaum. And a lot of the credit has to go star Zain Al Rafeea for doing much of the emotional heavy lifting of the film, giving one of the best performances from a child actor I have ever seen. Seriously, I know awards season just ended, but I would have put him in the mix with the best of them. Al Rafeea’s upbringing being similar to that of his character, he’s able to underly an incredibly natural temperament with such melancholy and fatigue you’d think he’s been doing this his whole life. And when the time finally comes down the stretch for him to let it out in an appropriately cathartic climax, he will break your heart.

Yet for all the suffering Zain goes through throughout the runtime, Capernaum ultimately succeeds in making the viewer sympathize for nearly all the characters, even the ones that act the most despicably. It allows you to see them not so much as antagonists, but victims of circumstance, victims of opportunity, and in a sense, victims of themselves. It makes for a much richer understanding of the overall arc, that way there’s more thematic depth beyond the endless suffering of a twelve-year-old boy. And I have to give major credit to Labaki for being able to toe the line between aesthetically potent hardship and searing coming-of-age drama.

Take the Oscars for what you will, but I’m finding that this year’s selection of Foreign Films are some of my favorites of the year, with Capernaum now joining Shoplifters and Roma in my Top 10 of 2018. I’ve still yet to see Cold War and Never Look Away, but judging by what I’ve heard of them, they might see themselves at the top of my ranking as well. As it stands, though, Capernaum is a heart-wrenchingly brutal tale of childhood destitution that will leave you optimistic but ultimately in pieces.

Seriously though, bring a tissue, because this one’s a tearjerker.

Final Score: 10/10

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