This devastatingly emotional Oscar-nominated foreign film in many ways conquers Roma in that category. It won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes.
Capernaum, written and directed by Nadine Labaki, explores the sordid daily lives of a family living in the slums of a Lebanese city. The cinematography is captivating as it shows the squalid nature of this community from breath-taking overhead shots following a 12-year-old as he rambles through the crowded streets and alleys.
In many ways, I couldn’t help but feel that Ms. Labaki had taken inspiration from Dante’s portrayal of the River Styx. However, while Dante had his river connect the real world to eternity in Hell, Ms. Labaki describes a Styx tributary that takes humans to a living hell existence on earth.
In one of the greatest performances by a child actor in the history of film, Zain Alrafeea plays Zain, a 12-year-old boy serving a 5-year sentence for a violent crime. From the beginning of the film where you see Zain in court with a lawyer bringing a lawsuit against his parents for neglect, the film heads in a direction that will take you to the edge of an emotional collapse as you sit entranced in your seat.
Zain lives with his many sisters in a small two-room shed. His parents are a bitter couple, and he flees to the streets when they give away his eleven-year-old sister, who happens to be his best friend, to a landlord as a bride. While Zain’s prison sentence relates to a violent attack on his sister’s husband when he learns of her death, you watch him live off the streets as he tries to find any type of work where he can keep from starving to death. In the process, he meets Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), a single mother of a one-year-old child who takes him into her home.
What transpires is one of the most loveable relationships that you will see on the big screen. Zain is offered both decent food and a place to live if he will watch the young boy while Rahil goes to work each day. The two boys quickly become friends, with the one-year-old, whose real name is Boluwatife, being listed in the credits as a member of the cast.
However, trouble ensues when Rahil is arrested for not having a proper identification. When she doesn’t come home for days, Zain and his young cohort are forced to hit the streets in the hopes of both finding her and scavenging some food to stay alive. When you see them pouring sugar on top of ice cubes as an evening meal you will know why your heart will be battered and bruised long before this film ends.
The streets that Zain roams are filled with vendors who are willing to buy and sell human beings for alleged good purposes. Zain is smart enough to know better, but what is he to do when the lad he loves appears to be starving to death? I went to see this film with my dear friend Belle Choate and this was one of the many scenes where she was left gasping while burying her face in her hands. I forced myself to watch every scene as I cried without shame or regret.
While Capernaum describes what it means to be poor while living in the Middle East, it in many ways was a reflection on life in America. Our government, both nationally and locally, treats the middle class in much the same fashion as what you observe in this film. Look at our President who wants to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on a needless wall on our southern border while states like Indiana and cities like Indianapolis fight to obtain funds to keep our infrastructure from collapsing. Instead of using billions to build this wall, wouldn’t it make more sense to allocate those funds to the states so we could repair our roads where working men and women could travel back and forth to their jobs without feeling like we are travelling through a war zone?
But this god-awful catastrophe doesn’t stop there. Forty-thousand Americans are gunned down ever year not by immigrants, but by other American citizens. Yet we are to both hate and fear Hispanic families who are trying to enter this country to find a better life. We have the largest jail population, the majority of whom are African-Americans, than any other country on earth and it made me think of this film where Zain was imprisoned as a 12-year-old. If you doubt my reasoning, look at the Hoosier state where our legislature is trying to pass laws that will allow 14-year-olds to be treated like adults in a court of law.
Forgive me, but I can’t help but look upon the White River here in Indiana as our tributary of the River Styx.