Movie Review: 'Capernaum'

John Thomas

Places are like the moon, they have a dark side which is never shown to anybody. Once considered the Paris of the Middle East, the 5,000-year-old city of Beirut, Lebanon has for decades been devastated by civil wars and political corruption.

This once glamorous metropolis has now become the dark side that is hidden. Hidden, that is, until Nadine Labaki tells us the profoundly moving story of Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) and Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), two children of this slum capital.

Zain is a young boy of undocumented age (around 12) who, becoming so disgusted with his irresponsible parents and their gaggle of children, that he runs away from home to exist on his own. His offers to work for pay are unsuccessful so he steals. While on a bus ride, he is drawn to an old man in a Spiderman/cockroach costume. The cockroach-man works for a circus. Zain follows him inside the grounds with the hope of finding work or at least something to eat. Zain is befriended by Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) an Ethiopian refugee who does maintenance work for the circus. She takes pity on him and invites him to spend the night in the shed she calls home.

Here he meets her toddler son Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw). If he looks after her son while she is at work, he can stay; she promises to bring food home after work.

This becomes a successful arrangement until one day, Yonas doesn’t return home. The boys eventually become restless and hungry and set out to wander the filthy streets of the slum neighborhood. Zain is either carrying or pulling Rahil by the hand. The human-trafficking business is bustling in this part of Beirut so Zain is ever alert to the dangers of the two becoming separated.

The two children exist in these hazardous circumstances until the day they return home to find a new lock and chain around the entrance to their living quarters. The rent hasn’t been paid so their meager belongings are tossed into the street, and they are now without shelter or food. Things get worse when Zain comes to the attention of the authorities. He has no papers, so in reality, he doesn’t exist. He sues his parents for bringing him into this world “without his permission.”

This is a tragic story, so convincingly told that the audience is stunned by this staggering realism. It is one told in many parts of the world today.

The two young actors are not professionally trained but are children of the streets of Beirut. This in no way impedes their brilliant performances, nor does the bleakness of the slum prevent the film from moving the dark side into the light.

Capernaum is directed by Nadine Labaki (Credits: Where Do We Go Now, Caramel). This “must see” movie runs 126 minutes.


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