Capernaum Review: An Imperfect, if Unflinching Look at a World of Chaos

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Nadine Labaki takes you on a trip to see the very worst that living through poverty in Lebanon would be like from a first hand experience with Capernaum. But one thing that caught me about Nadine Labaki’s approach to this subject matter was the fact that she never looks down upon her own subjects, she observes everything here with an incredibly careful eye. To say that it would be the best way to approach such difficult subject matter is one thing, but there’s a sense of honesty coming forth from how Nadine Labaki reflects her own background as an artist here. You recognize the world in Capernaum as being one that has influenced how Labaki has continually grown as an artist, most importantly as one that has influenced the stories that she chooses to tell. As she tells a story of a young boy trying to find a better living for himself in an area that only ever seems to have itself surrounded by nothing other than the absolute worst, there’s a great deal to admire about the rawness that Labaki deals with in the climate.

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Fittingly enough, the title “Capernaum” translates to “chaos” in the English language – which already sets up the perfect tone for what to expect. We start from the framing of a court session taking place, as our protagonist, the young Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) has threatened to sue his parents for bringing him into a world of nothing but chaos. We soon cut back to get a glimpse of what his life is like back at home, where we see that his family is massive enough on its own – and he escapes, now with refugee status. While away from home, we also get a glimpse into the life of a woman he meets, named Rahil (Yordanas Shiferaw). Soon enough, this story becomes so much more than that of Zain, and the extent to which his world has affected the way he grows, seeing nothing but awful things happening day by day. Labaki uses this environment to create another sort of coming of age story, although it never shies away from leaving behind glimmers of hope that everything can slowly get better.

Labaki’s film is one that is built upon misery, sometimes to that point it seems to exploit that struggle – but it’s never boring. At first I was totally unsure how to feel about the film’s sometimes meandering structure, and even more so the very idea behind a child suing his own parents for not being able to adequately provide for him, yet the very craft that Nadine Labaki puts into Capernaum, which is only the Lebanese filmmaker’s third feature film as of yet, is highly admirable. The very rawness in her approach to her subject matter is never anything less than empathetic, but there’s another power being shown in the way she reflects her own state of living and how the world’s own cruelty has even shaped her own growth. With an exceptional lead performance from Zain Al Rafeea, an actual Syrian refugee who had no prior acting experience, it’d be easy enough for me to say that Capernaum would not have worked as successfully at creating the sort of beauty that it had managed to evoke – but Labaki never looks down upon such a subject for her own gain, which allows it to remain authentic.

There was a point to which I had also said to myself that perhaps this may even be a bit too much, particularly because of the hardships placed upon Zain the moment he runs off from his family. I also found the framing device of a court case to be rather questionable – particularly because of how distanced it feels from the sociopolitical context that Labaki is working around. When Labaki mentions that it’s also much worse in reality than shown in her film, I wonder to myself if that were possible. It only ever seems to be a device used out of convenience, but as we flash back to see Rahil’s side of the story coming into play, that’s where I wonder about the extent to which it truly did benefit the film. At most, it feels like a cheap ploy to make aware the feeling of manipulation on Labaki’s end, which never felt right especially with the subject matter that is being handled on the spot. But that’s not to say I don’t admire the intentions that Labaki has behind bringing this story to the screen, I just feel as if the rawness to her own filmmaking style could have rung true if moments that felt like filler such as those weren’t included.

But there’s another level to which I think this one finds itself working – and it’s clear enough from the way in which Labaki uses her lens in order to bring audiences to see that very world in which she grew up within. As mentioned earlier, that title “Capernaum” translates to “chaos” in the English language – and Labaki captures every bit of that chaos for as oppressive as it can be to young children, traumatized by the preconceived notion that there is no hope for them even as they grow older. They know that they’re going to live within a world of chaos until they run into some sort of a miracle, which is something that I’m sure Labaki wanted to reflect from her own experiences. But it’s clear that Labaki sees potential for them, which is something that I do admire greatly. We know that Zain wants to reach such, just as Rahil would from simply wanting to escape a life where everything that comes by is hardship after hardship. But therein lies the question as to what it would take for them to adapt to their own environment, and that’s where a more powerful experience comes into play.

I’m not entirely sure how well does Capernaum work from simply being the way it is – because there are moments of sentimentality that feel rather jarring in the context of the work, making clear how Labaki wants you to feel, but it never treads upon that. Sometimes, it can be hard to imagine what life must be like for said people you can’t bring yourself to look at the screen anymore – but that image left in your head is something that makes you wish things are better. It’s important that Labaki still allows a feeling of hope to shine through even the darkest spots in her work, because it’s important to remember that change can be possible if we are to allow it to happen. None of this is perfect, but it definitely leaves images in your head that you won’t be able to remove from there anytime sooner – especially in regards to what the realities that these children face must be like.


Watch the trailer right here.

All images via Sony Pictures Classics.


Directed by Nadine Labaki
Screenplay by Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojaily, Michelle Keserwany
Produced by Michel Merkt, Khaled Mouzanar
Starring Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanas Shiferaw
Release Date: September 20, 2018
Running Time: 126 minutes

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