Magazine article Screen International

'Capernaum': Cannes Review

Magazine article Screen International

'Capernaum': Cannes Review

Article excerpt

Lebanese director Nadine Labaki delivers a powerful story about a 12 year-old boy who takes his parents to court

‘Capernaum’

Dir: Nadine Labaki. Lebanon. 2018. 133mins.

A gritty drama shot on the streets of Beirut with a cast of non-professional actors, Capernaum is a howl of protest against social injustice, a film as grounded in a place and time and yet as universal in its empathy with the dispossessed as Bicycle Thieves or Salaam Bombay! If viewers were expecting another gently barbed women’s comedy from Lebanese director Nadine Labaki (Caramel), it’s time to think again.

It looks like an early shoe-in for a Best Foreign Film nomination

The title derives from the French term ‘caphernaum’ meaning “confused mess”, and there are ways, both good and bad, in which Labaki’s bombshell of a film is just that. Ostensibly, it’s about a young Beirut street kid who takes his parents to court for the crime of bringing him into the world. But within this largely symbolic framing device, the script raises a host of issues, from the invisible status of migrants living in conditions of virtual slavery to the way parents facing grinding poverty are forced to make bad choices for their children, so as not to make worse ones. If it doesn’t tie many (or any) of these thematic strands with a neat bow, that’s in the nature of a film that chooses raw dramatic power over narrative finesse.

Long, at 133 minutes, with a loose middle section, Capernaum has the anger, the energy and a galvanising central performance by Syrian migrant child Zain al Rafeea to move audiences the world over. It looks like an early shoe-in for a Best Foreign Film nomination, its path smoothed by Sony Pictures Classics’ acquisition of the title in the early days of the Cannes film festival, where it plays in a competition berth.

It will take the audience a while to get to the reason why 12 year-old Zaid wants to sue his parents in the courtroom scene that opens the film, or why he’s currently serving a five-year sentence in a Lebanese juvenile prison, or who it was he stabbed to get there. What’s clear from the get-go is that this tough but sensitive street kid, played by a tough but sensitive street kid who (the pressbook informs us) started working for a living at the age of ten, will be the film’s main focus and moral centre. Backtracking from the courtroom intro, Capernaum reveals Zain’s life before this parental arraignment, which has attracted intense media attention from local news networks. …

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