From a prison phone, a 12-year-old broadcasts his torture through a speaker in a television studio, simply stating, “I’m living in hell.”
In her Academy Award-nominated drama, Capernaum, Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki captures the slums of Beirut through the perspectives of refugees and undocumented civilians who fear that they are constantly on the verge of deportation and death.
The boy, Zain Al Hajj (Zain Al Rafeea), spends his waking hours selling saltwater, beet juice and whatever else he can scrounge from his surroundings so his siblings can survive. From the moment the viewer is introduced to Zain, we understand just by looking at him that he has suffered and is on the verge of his breaking point. From subtle displays of rage in the form of forceful kicks against inanimate objects to the cursing and "grown-up" posturing toward his family and store merchants, this is not simply a 12-year-old child. Rather, he pleads for order for those he cares for, such as his younger sister Sahar (Haita 'Cedra' Izzam).
The narrative escalates through what feels like a series of short films rather than a single story. It’s easy to see how the film segments off with the addition of new characters, such as single mother Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), or when Zain is left alone with Rahil’s infant son, Yonas. All that’s missing are title cards for individual chapters that could have acted as standalone narratives.
The film itself begins as Zain attends his first day in court over his lawsuit against his parents. The lawsuit serves as a loose framing device that provides context for certain events and foreshadows what is to come later, but it is used so inconsistently that the viewer can easily forget it is taking place.
The suit resembles more of a symbolic gesture to communicate the unbridled resentment Zain holds toward his family and toward life itself. This feels misplaced in a story so dependent on realism that it uses non-professional actors, who themselves have more than likely experienced the lives of their own characters firsthand.
The constant dread the main characters experienced is communicated to the point of excess. When the fate of the characters, particularly Zain, appears to be turning around for the better, something causes him to revert back to the broken state in which he was first introduced. It’s reminiscent of the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, but the difference here is that we are told explicitly at the beginning the fate of the characters. Thus, it complicates the sense of hope the viewer is attempting to kindle.
Overall, Capernaum communicates the chaotic, existential horror of David Lynch’s Eraserhead or Elem Climov’s Come and See with a sense of dirt-coated nihilism that at times serves to its own detriment. Labaki shows tremendous potential, and it’s good that her work is receiving the recognition it has so far, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Yet the structure and pathos of the film leave the viewer with not a sense of bitterness but instead a bitter taste in their mouth.