People who know me know that I am a serious filmgoer. I like to be challenged. I thrive on it.
David Fincher? Not a problem for me. Lukas Moodysson? Piece of cake. Lars von Trier? More like Lars von Soft.
I watch Takashi Miike movies to relax before bed. And I wish Terrence Malick would slow the hell down.
But even I was not prepared for Nadine Labaki’s Capharnaüm.
The Lebanese film begins with what could be considered a high-concept hook. Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a precocious 12-year-old boy, wants to sue his parents. Sounds like a light comedy, right? Possibly a Macaulay Culkin vehicle or something in the family of Irreconcilable Differences starring a feisty young Drew Barrymore.
But very quickly, the idea moves from being a light gimmick to a framing device that boxes in your heart and slowly squeezes it until there’s nothing left. Think I’m being dramatic?
This movie, a contender for the best foreign film Oscar (it won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year after receiving a 15-minute standing ovation, if that kind of thing means anything to you), openly invites these kinds of comparisons. These over-the-top metaphors. It wants to hunt you down and wrestle you to the ground. It’s trying to hurt you.
Zain lives with his parents and innumerable siblings in the slums of Beirut. They are literally forgotten people – they can’t afford birth registration papers and so, as far as the state is concerned, they don’t exist. The children earn money through a variety of schemes of varying legality.
Pushed over the edge by the way his parents marry off his 11-year-old sister Sahar (Haita Cedra Izzam), Zain runs away from home and lives with an Ethiopian immigrant Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her adorable toddler Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). Rahil is welcoming but she’s got her own problems – she lives under a different name and is always in danger of being detained by immigration enforcement while being preyed upon by those willing to take advantage of her situation.
The movie, up to this point, is not a lot of laughs. There’s a lot of surviving, with some moments of childhood airiness mixed in, particularly between Zain and his sister. These children are victims of the state of the world and its humanitarian crises.
And then things get serious.
Rahil is eventually caught, leaving Zain, who, I remind you, is 12 years old, to take care of baby Yonas. He drags him around in a makeshift wagon. He learns to bathe and feed him. And they develop what must be one of the most heartbreaking friendships in cinema history. Every moment they endure together is pure pain – we know these kids can’t make it. The world won’t allow it.
Meanwhile, Al Rafeea and Bankole deliver two of the best child performances I’ve ever seen. Like a lot of the performers in the film, they’re non-professionals with their own real-life sad stories (Al Rafeea is a Syrian refugee who’s lived in Lebanon for several years and Bankole’s mother was detained by immigration officials during filming).
The toddler is especially magical. She’s a little girl playing a boy, for some reason, and has incredible comic relief timing. If there are light moments in this movie, it’s because of her cheeriness. And that cheeriness makes everything happening around these kids all the more difficult to take.
So why suffer through something like this? To be reminded that the world is a cruel and horrible place? I already know that, thanks.
Well, according to science, watching sad movies boosts pain tolerance and endorphins – just like “singing and dancing and jogging and laughter”. (Jogging?)
And there’s apparently something about watching depressing movies in a safe environment that allows us to confront sad thoughts and concepts we’d normally avoid.
You certainly wouldn’t watch a movie like this for a happy ending. The best you can hope for is some kind of affirmation of life – some sign that yes, life is worth living, even when everything and everyone around you is trash.
Capharnaüm offers you this, but not without complications.
Does the movie overdo it in the sadness department? Is it “poverty porn”? Well, do you think City of God (2002) overdid it? Related question: Do you have ice running through your veins? Also, Oprah thinks this movie is great. Are you calling her a liar?
Just know that Capharnaüm feels real – like it’s standing up for all the discarded children of the world, reminding humanity of the horrors that are possible if we’re not vigilant.
Will you sleep soundly after watching Zain cry for his abandoned sister or attempt to release poor Yonas into the concrete wilderness and generally wish he hadn’t been born? I sure didn’t. In fact, after holding my breath (and holding back tears) for the last 20 minutes, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.
And that’s not to say that I wasn’t entertained, though “entertain” may not be the right word. But it is engaging. It’s not a slog or a burden. It keeps your attention, but it’s also heavy and makes you feel bad as you shake your head in disbelief that these characters are being forced to go through all of this.
Recently, an Indian man sued his parents for giving birth to him without his permission. The news set off a wave of jokes deriding the preposterousness of the man’s argument. How could he consent to his own birth?
But there is a deep underlying seriousness to the man’s claim that in a world full of suffering, adding more people only adds to the suffering.
He’s not trying to spite his parents. He’s fighting for Zain.
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Capharnaüm is in cinemas now.