Last year, Lebanon earned an Oscar nomination in the Foreign Language category for the courtroom drama, The Insult, which depicted toxic masculinity against the backdrop of sectarian violence. Now, a year later, acclaimed writer and director Nadine Labaki makes a strong case for consecutive nominations with Capernaum (derived from the Arabic word for “chaos”), another intense drama dealing with tribal instincts through the lens of the legal system, with some surprising thematic twists.
In what may be the most pro-abortion movie I’ve ever seen, the film begins with Zain, a boy of approximately 12 years (though he looks no more than 8; a dental checkup with no remaining baby teeth is used to determine his age), being dragged into a courtroom in handcuffs. He’s been imprisoned for stabbing a man. However, that crime is not being tried. Instead, the young Zain (played with committed fervor by Zain Al Rafeea) is suing his parents (Kawthar Al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Youssef) for giving birth to him in the first place.
Zain lives in abject poverty. He is the second oldest of at least six children, and the only son of the family. The whole family lives in a single-bedroom apartment above a corner shop where Zain works with the owner, Assadd (Nour el Husseini). Assadd lets Zain’s family live rent-free in exchange for Zain’s work and for marriage considerations when it comes to the next-youngest child, 11-year-old Sahar (Cedra Izam). Despite their destitution, Zain’s parents continue to have sex, with only a sheet curtain separating the children from the parents, which drives Zain insane because his parents don’t even try to give the kids they already have a shot at a decent future. When Sahar has her first period, Zain does everything in his power to protect her so she’s not sold off to Assadd, and is eventually forced to flee.
The second act finds Zain in another city looking for work, and falling in with an Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her toddler son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). Staying with them, Zain learns what it feels like to have a real, caring parent, and he’s eager to help out wherever he can. Rahil has her own issues, being an illegal immigrant and owing money to a black market trader named Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh) for her forged documentation. Aspro too wants custody of a young child, in this case Yonas, hoping to sell him as a means for Rahil to pay off her debt.
Both stories offer parallel beats. Zain experiences the worst kind of poverty and has to deal with human traffickers. This dichotomy provides equally valid targets for Zain to commit the assault that lands him in prison. The main difference is that he sees how disastrous one side of the equation can be, with his parents continuously reproducing because “Allah” says they should have as many children as possible, while on the other side he gets to see a loving, caring parent who will sacrifice anything and everything to keep her child safe. Rahil goes to the greatest lengths possible for Yonas, while Zain’s mom casually greets relatives from a prison yard. The juxtaposition of these two crucial thematic elements in otherwise very similar stories is staggering, and makes the reveal of Zain’s victim and his reasons for being in court all the more compelling.
In a more reductive manner, one could sum this up as the movie version of Helen Lovejoy screaming, “Won’t someone PLEASE think of the children?!?!” But Al Rafeea’s leading performance elevates the proceedings beyond just a series of bummer moments. With his stone-faced intensity, Zain becomes an avatar for all suffering innocents, and the seemingly impossible obstacles people have to go through to change their station in life. The opening sequence offers a telling moment, because Zain has no birth certificate, and his parents can only guess at his birth date and age. In the eyes of the government, Zain does not legally exist, and it’s not too different in his day-to-day life. He is only noticed when he decides, passing through hordes of people, sometimes dragging Yonas behind him in a pot while walking, barely registering on the world’s collective radar.
The key to enjoying this film is engaging with Zain’s plight right from the beginning. If you can commit to his story, then this is a tragic, lovely film about the struggles of society’s most vulnerable. If you can’t connect, then it’s just a bunch of sad stuff that happens. Given that the film is shortlisted in Foreign Language, and that it won the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I’m guessing most people would fall into the former category.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you enjoy courtroom dramas? Who the hell marries an 11-year-old? Let me know!