Director Nadine Labaki
Labaki on the set
Labaki with child actor Zain Al Rafeea
CAPERNAUM (Capharnaüm) B-
Lebanon France USA (126 mi) 2018 ‘Scope d: Nadine Labaki Official site
A wrenching street drama that has drawn plenty of attention, awarded the Jury Prize at Cannes where it received a 15-minute standing ovation after the initial screening, becoming the highest grossing Arabic-language film and the highest grossing Middle-Eastern film of all time, where its strongest showing is in international box office receipts, with a particularly strong showing in China. What does this all mean? While it’s been compared to Buñuel’s LOS OLVIDADOS (1950) or Babenco’s PIXOTE (1981) in terms of its searing social realism, nothing could be further from the truth, as instead of a seethingly unsentimentalized portrait, this is distinctly manipulative, the picture of poverty porn, where each image is carefully chosen to elicit the strongest feelings of emotional pity, literally rubbing the viewer’s face in an unending misery that couldn’t be more wretched. To this end, the film is a complete success, immersed in social realism, using non-professionals, many having lived through similar experiences, but given heavy doses of melodrama and commercialized tears and pathos, arguably more in line with Danny Boyle’s SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), glossing over many of the real social issues plaguing these victims, like how did they get there, avoiding the racist, sexist, and nationalist barriers that women and refugees typically face, or the government’s complicity, instead becoming a travelogue through destitution and squalor, largely told through a child’s point of view, becoming relentlessly bleak, where viewers feel sorry for the protagonist and all that he has to endure. All that’s missing are charity groups asking for donations after the film. Compare that to the subtle craftsmanship of the best Middle-Eastern filmmakers like Kiarostami or Makhmalbaf where there isn’t an ounce of sentimentality. Labaki began her directing career doing commercials and music videos, so finding ways to emotionally affect viewers is her stock and trade. There’s nothing subtle about this film, as it’s in-your-face all the time, a pummeling assault to the senses with no breaks for the weary, where the sight of hundreds of children begging on the streets of Beirut has become the new normal. It’s an eye-opening yet tiresome journey through the urban sprawl, in the graffiti-spewing alleyways still riddled with bullets and dilapidated shacks set in the ruins of bombed-out buildings, where slums arise in the uninhabitable regions that mostly don’t have electricity or running water, with people packed like sardines under tin roofs, sleeping on top of one another, mostly war-torn refugees (who comprise half the population in Lebanon at the moment) without papers or documentation, stuck in a state of limbo just trying to survive, doing anything they can, feeling like utter chaos in makeshift neighborhoods literally sprawling with kids, many with sticks substituting for Kalashnikov rifles, playing war games on the filthy streets, hellraisers in one of the darkest corners of the globe.
Told almost entirely through flashback sequences, this is actually a courtroom drama, a moralizing tale, where a jailed Lebanese 12-year old, Zain (Zain Al Rafeea, a marvel, onscreen in nearly every shot, a Syrian refugee in real life who has miraculously made his way to Norway) is walked in slow motion from his prison cell in a juvenile detention center to the court in handcuffs, serving a five-year sentence for stabbing a man he describes as “a son of a bitch,” represented by an attorney who happens to be the filmmaker, as he’s bringing charges against his parents “because I was born,” for bringing him into this abject world, with no ID, no official record of his birth, keeping him out of school, forced to run errands for a malevolent landlord who runs a corner kiosk, turning him into a beggar on the streets, where he’s been called despicable names and menaced by street predators his entire life. Any way you slice it, this is a preposterous premise, one that tugs on the heart strings, becoming an epic Darwinian journey through a pathetic existence, as we follow this young boy on his nightmarish road through hell. His parents are among the candidates for the worst ever, putting all their children to work, regardless of their age, constantly threatening and berating them, running an illicit drug business, using their children as pawns while they hide in the shadows, with routine visits to jail to visit their older children, smuggling them drugs they can sell in prison. This unhappy household sends Zain out into the streets, his only refuge, but it’s shark-infested waters, as he witnesses police harass and round up undocumented refugees, filling the jails to capacity without even blinking an eye. Zain takes a protective view of his 11-year old sister Sahar (Haita “Cedra” Izzam), showing her how to hide her first period from her parents, as they’re quick on the trigger to marry her off once she blossoms into womanhood. The man with his eye on her is the corrupt landlord Assad (Nour el Husseini), who threatens to throw the family out on the street unless he gets what he wants. This kind of coercion is typical, causing families and generations of children to constantly live in fear of exposure to the authorities. Devising a plan of escape with Sahar, Zain arrives too late, as his parents have already made the necessary arrangements, dragging her out of the home kicking and screaming, with his mother knocking Zain to the ground for interfering, brutally invoking a picture of childhood trauma, literally sold like slaves to the highest bidder, who offers a mere pittance of just a few chickens in return. In disgust, Zain runs away, hopping on a bus, running into an eccentric man who works at an amusement park, following after him, finding himself lost in an underworld of anonymity with no one looking for him.
Alone in the margins, the only people that notice him are others living in the same margins, as it’s a secretive world they inhabit, catching the eye of an Ethiopian custodian, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who takes pity on him, cleaning him up and feeding him, allowing him to watch over her baby son Yonas (who is actually a girl!) while she’s at work. In contrast to his own, Rahil is a loving mother, continuously doting on her baby, but time literally stops when she’s away, as they’re stuck indoors with literally nothing to do. Being an enterprising young kid, he places a mirror out the window reflecting the TV cartoons playing in the adjoining quarters, so they can sit and watch while sequestered inside, never leaving the room, as Rahil is undocumented, using a forged work permit that’s about to expire, having trouble raising the money, leaving her in an exasperated state of fear. When she doesn’t come home one night, the mood of the film creeps ever more dour, as their tenuous hold on reality turns savagely raw and primitive, living in a wretched state, deprived of all basic necessities. This section, however, defines the film, as it’s basically children raising children with essentially no resources, which describes the plight of the refugee, ostracized and forgotten by civilized societies, living in total depravity, often in plain sight on the street, where it’s impossible to know when their next meal is coming. Other than Zain, this baby has more screen time than anyone else, so we see him in every conceivable mood, hungry and inconsolable, with no clean diapers, where he’s a drooling mess of mucous and tears, not a pretty sight, but he also grows attached to Zain, who is forced to carry him everywhere, devising methods to haul him on a stolen skateboard, but they are a sight for sore eyes. The irony here is that Zain is a Lebanese citizen, yet without papers he may as well be invisible, treated with the same scorn as refugees, who carry a hope at least of seeking asylum elsewhere, an option not available to Zain. This downward spiral exhausts viewers, as this stretch feels monotonously dismal, with the mother rounded up and languishing in prison, equally distraught. Occasional breaks back into the courtroom are the only relief from this catastrophic turn, but even there we get the self-justifying testimony of the deplorable parents, so there is literally no escape from this wretched terrain, with Labaki imprinting these dour images on her viewing public, forcing a skeptical public to see unfiltered views of the absolute worst circumstances on earth, which is balanced against the prison conditions, one no better than the other. A theme of futility is everpresent, offering no signs of hope or change, as absolutely no solutions are even suggested. Clearly the film exudes empathy, as this is the picture the director aspired to make, and some, at least, are lauding her for it, yet you can’t shake the moral patronizing, where the poor are paraded before the public like lab rats, then judged for being bad parents (even though they were born into similar circumstances), where it’s as heavy-handed and manipulative as a Spielberg film, the only difference being the politicized subject matter, as some directors simply don’t trust their audiences to figure things out, so everything has to be spelled out for them. Lacking the poetry of the artform, those are the worst commercial instincts when it comes to cinema, regardless of intent.