Capernaum movie poster
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Capernaum
Capernaum movie poster

Capernaum Movie Review

In the excellent Capernaum (Chaos), a Lebanese boy has such a shitty life that he sues his parents for bringing him and his siblings into this world.

Directed by Nadine Labaki, Capernaum is an enthralling look at life for the underprivileged in Lebanon and a scathing analysis of childrearing and neglectful parenting (I’ve seen some references to this being called the most pro-choice movie that has nothing to do with abortion). The drama stars young Zain Al Rafeea—as Zain—who runs away from home after his sister is married to a much older man and is hired by an illegal immigrant to care for her 1-year-old child while she’s at work.

Nothing about Capernaum is cheerful—it won’t go down as the feel-good movie of the year—and yet much of the movie is enthralling as it follows Zain through an unpredictable yet equally believable set of circumstances. Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee in real life who was more or less cast off the street, is absolutely terrific, embodying a character who is wise beyond his years and yet desperately seeking parental oversight. The story itself isn’t one of despair, and yet in Zain’s eyes, his is a miserable existence.

Labaki appears to love tackling paradoxes such as this. Zain’s parents negligently have had too many children and either don’t know or don’t care how to parent, going so far as to give one of their young daughters to a man knowing full well what may happen to her yet seemingly unconcerned, perhaps even delighted that she is no longer their responsibility, nonetheless. But Labaki also introduces us to Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), a woman who loves her child dearly but can barely make ends meet to feed her—and since she is in Lebanon illegally, she risks being separated from her child permanently. Is she a better mother than Zain’s? The argument isn’t entirely clear, perhaps because the answer is in the eye of the beholder.

Themes of duality course throughout Capernaum, which Labaki uses effectively to garner emotion, compassion and even anger. Nothing is simple here, and that complexity is what makes Capernaum so fascinating.

Capernaum is a hard watch in many ways, but not in the ways you’d expect. It explores complex situations with complex answers, yet it tells a convincing, engaging story in seemingly simple terms. It’s a beautiful film about not-beautiful things.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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