Film Review By Aaron Valenta
The opening credits translate Capernaum to “chaos” in English. Throughout the film, chaos remains an ever-present force: the struggled life of our child protagonist Zain, the raging civil war and refugees spilling across Lebanon’s east border from Syria, and the abuse and neglect of parents failing to feed and care for their children. All of these are guiding forces that threaten the free-will of each player in this film.
We initially meet Zain as he is suing his parents for giving him life and failing to provide. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn more about the circumstances that drove him to the plaintiff’s chair in front of a Lebanese magistrate’s bench. He cares deeply for his numerous sisters and does his best to save his 11-year-old sister from an arranged marriage. His later interactions with an Ethiopian immigrant and her newborn child further solidify Zain’s willingness to help those around him. A question lingers in your mind: Is this work altruistic? Or is this a path forced on Zain for survival?
Further complicating his situation, Zain has no identification, no birth record, and he has never been to school. He cannot escape Lebanon nor even assimilate into a Syrian refugee caravan without proving a real or even a fake identity. His parents may have given him life, but they doomed him to a purgatory beset on all sides. It is a daily fight to stay alive and there is an impending sense that crisis in the unstable region surrounding Lebanon could further disrupt his life without warning.
Capernaum constantly forces you to question the level of agency we have when making decisions. Sure, you have a choice, but when the alternative options are so dire, is it really a choice at all?
What Zain wants so desperately in that initial courtroom scene is simple: a choice. He wants the ability to make decisions. The ability to do what he wants, not what he must. He mourns his ability to make choices, which was removed from him when he was born based on the circumstances and location of his birth.
Beyond this film, there is further commentary to be had with respect to today’s Syrian Civil War, a conflict adjacent to Lebanon. There is a connection to the Syrian Civil War, especially with the main antagonist who is named Assad, which I imagine should be taken as a reference to Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria since 2000. With growing unrest since the Arab Spring of 2011, Syrians have been calling for an end to al-Assad’s leadership. The conflict has come far since those early protests, and consequently taken away the agency from many in the region. Moreover, the film’s depiction of the character Assad wanting to take Zain’s sister as a young child-bride is analogous to the actions taken by the Syrian government after the Arab Spring protests (which attempted to force the unrest to submit to authority before it had the chance to blossom into a revolution). Deeper parallels between the film and the conflict exist, but to explore them in this review would ruin impactful sequences in the movie. Suffice to say that the introduction provided here serves as an initial thought to keep in mind during your viewing.
Capernaum is supported by an ever-present, yet unobtrusive score that properly punctuates key moments throughout the film. Camera shots are often about three feet off the ground (and sometimes even lower), presenting Zain’s experiences through his eyes. As we move throughout the settings in the film (hovelled living arrangements, crowded streets and markets, and a jail), our distance from camera to action is kept to a minimum. Not only does this allow the actors in Capernaum to dominate the screen and showcase heartfelt performances, but this also provides a consistent unease and desire for escape. Director Nadine Labaki gives us all the necessary pieces to feel as Zain feels, causing Capernaum to triumph in this effort.
It is a blessing and a curse that Capernaum was up for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. Even though it lost to Alfonso Curran’s Roma (which is by far and away the best picture in the world this year), Capernaum deserves every bit of praise coming its way and is worth a contemplative viewing.