Capernaum Makes Chaos Seem Agonisingly Mundane

Capernaum (“Chaos”, in French) is a big film for 2018/19. Winner of the Cannes Jury prize, and nominated for Best Foreign language film at the 2019 Oscars, it has certainly attracted plaudits.

Opening on the slums of Beirut, the film’s central character works the narrative in flashback format. Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is the neglected child, suing his parents in court for bringing him into the destitute world he has to put up with. When his 11-year-old sister gets her first period and is married off, our Zain decides to abandon his life in hope of a new one. Seeking work, he eventually finds the refuge of fairground cleaner, and part-time mother, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw). The film follows the protagonist’s struggle with the hardship and strange chaos that defines his upbringing.

The film’s strengths are in its realism. Taking us through the hustle of the streets of Beirut, we are thrust into the reality of its poverty, and constraints against which Zain and his estranged family have to live by. In this, we see corruption: scenes of kids smoking, overcrowded prison cells, threadbare living conditions, etc. Constant noises flit in and out of the scene – of cars and motorcycles racing by, or people barging into shot. For our protagonist, this reflects a constant theme: life interrupted by strangers, his childhood lost.

Through the innocent eyes of Zain, we are encouraged to pause and reflect. Indeed, the actor Zain really adopts his namesake role, and amidst these cramped and chaotic conditions, the choice by director Nadine Lebicki to have a child as the central performance is a poignant one. The film is said to be based on real events, with the only contrivance being the parent trial. This makes it only more heart-breaking, as destitute and forlorn Zain is a reminder of how much we take for granted our privilege of birthright, and how unjust this birthright lottery can be.

Despite this, I did have my shortcomings about it, as in points the narrative can be cloying. I was reminded of the 2018 Cannes winner ‘Shoplifters’, a film that depicts a similar theme of a child growing up too fast in an impoverished environment. And yet, unlike ‘Shoplifters’, Capernaum fails to evoke a sense of endearment in its central character. Zain is the forlorn protagonist from the very start, which leaves us almost lacking in moments that remind us he is still a child. Lacking this contextualisation, the tragedy feels almost forced, and as result we are distanced from the drama.

Furthermore, the contrivance of a child-trial seems a strange, almost satirical twist to this social-realism, and at times the flash-forward feels an unwanted interruption of the real drama: Zain’s frustration with the chaos of his personal life; the injustice of life in these Beirut slums. These views, however, are likely more reflect of my own taste rather than any objective view. ‘Capernaum’ is, all-in-all, an incredible achievement, with a poignant message: of how poverty can interfere with the intimate climate of family upbringing, and childhood development. For this reason, everyone should try and see it – in the cinema, whilst they still can.

Image credit: Fares Sokhon /