Nadine Labaki’s third feature film, the Oscar nominated Lebanese film “Capernaum”, is a bleak and deeply disturbing neo-realist film that is unpleasant and emotionally draining to endure, but also essential and piercing enough where it reminds the viewer just how fortunate we might have it our own lives. The end result is a brutally honest and ultimately rewarding film experience that brings deep empathy and grim realism to cinema that is crucial and needed. It’s more commendable and commanding than something like Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire”, that uses a lot of unearned sentimentally to manipulate the audience from the endless suffering on display.
Labaki’s filmmaking mirrors the style of Italian neo-realism as it explores into the life of a child named Zain, a homeless boy who endures a lot of suffering as he tries to survive on the streets with unending work and bartering. This film makes Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project”, and Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Shoplifters” look tame and thin in caparison. It’s a punishing film to watch, but its also very honest and uncompromising. It certainly doesn’t lack any authenticity, other than the fact that Labaki may have went a little overdone with the suffering and bleakness that is on display.
Vastly different to Labaki’s previous films that include the 2007 comedy “Caramel” and the 2012 dramedy “Where Do We Go Now?”, Labaki is in complete serious mode here. Not to say “Capernaum” lacks any humor, there is a quirky moment that involves our protagonist Zain encounter an elder man in a Spider-Man suit that calls himself “Roach Man”, as the symbol on his costume is replaced with a roach instead of a spider. Outside of that the film has the aesthetic cinema-verite style throughout, and the subject matter is emotionally charged and natural.
The naturalism in the film throughout is very effective as Nadine carries out the Italian neo-realism roots by casting local non-professional actors that use a lot of improvisation that helps make the film and material appear to be more genuine and sincere. The film opens with Zain standing up for his close pre-teen sister who is married off to an older man as a child bride. After his family disowns him, he runs off and encounters a motherly Ethiopian illegal immigrant Rahil, who has a toddler baby boy named Yonas. After Rahil is detained by the Lebanese government for being in Lebanon illegally, Zain is left fending for himself and Yonas, played by Boluwatife Bankole who possibly gives the greatest toddler performance I ever saw in a film. Labaki just allows the camera to roll and observe as the baby craves for food, sleep, and ultimately his mother and her breast milk. In many ways this film echoes the honesty of “The Florida Project”, and it will shatter you just as much.
The film does take some narrative detours by cutting in and out of courtroom scenes that undermine the fluidity and momentum of the dramatic momentum. Labaki does get a little carried away with the bleakness, it allows the audience to ask “Did we really have to endure that much” as we get accounts of child endangerment, human trafficking, prisons, child abuse (Both emotional and physical), child sexual predators, a migrant crises, severe poverty, and many other obstacles. Granted this stuff does actually happen, and as I pointed out in my review for “Climax”, it almost gets a little too saturated with bleakness in one sitting.
Though in her favor, Labanzki is able to hone is true realism along with some remarkably honest performances from her childhood actors, Zain al Rafeea, who is so natural that you get immersed with just how real and raw it feels. The film does hit a lot of the same notes, and it does drag on about 15-20 mins too long, however the film does hold so many emotional payoffs that you can easily forgive its flaws.
Ultimately though, “Capernaum” is a crucial odyssey about a young boy who’s childhood and livelihood has been robbed from him. The film also leaves the viewer with hope, in which Zain for the first time puts on a smile in the confines of authorities in the suffering city of Beirut.