In Nadine Labaki’s searing new film Capernaum, a righteously angry young boy Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), from the slums of Beirut, says matter-of-factly in a courtroom that he is suing his parents for having been born. After the judge asks him why he wants to do this, the film deftly moves back in time to the conditions that Zain was living in while still living with his parents.
Here, in the overcrowded and filthy ‘flat’, the only family activity, apart from arguments, is creating homemade tramadol shots. The shots serve as way to make money as Zain’s jailed brother sells them in prison. After events lead him to run away from home, Zain wanders the streets trying to find work. Along his way he meets a young Ethiopian woman named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who is also struggling and, in many ways, mirrors Zain’s suffering in terms of severity rather than situationally.
She takes Zain in, allowing him to experience affection for the first time. As the pair bond, Rahil hesitantly allows Zain to watch over her child Yonas while at work. Caring for the infant, who he sees as a new sister, Zain does his best to avoid becoming like his father.
Zain Al Rafeea steals many of the scenes in this fluid and obviously improvised film. He portrays Zain as an individual who is numb to reality and wiser than his age would suggest. This is especially apparent in one telling scene he watches a cartoon and uses adult language that he has learned from hustling on the street.
The film captures the dust and grime of the Beirut streets, offering some moments that are almost too bleak to handle at times. Take for example the spine-chilling scenes in which the family fights with near-unbelievable intensity. There are, however, reprieves from the depression in some scenes such as when Zain meets an elderly gentleman who calls himself ‘Cockroach Man’.
Capernaum’s incredibly natural and realistic feel adds allows the film to land powerful gut-punches as Zain runs from one terrible situation to the next. Given that Al Rafeea lived a similar life to the one he is playing here, this film is almost like a documentary. Detailing the harsh life that so many children have lived, the film a powerful eye-opener.