While serving a five-year sentence for a violent crime, twelve-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) decides to sue his parents for the neglect and the life they’ve given him.
Capernaum begins with Zain being led to court in handcuffs to sue his parents and then the story goes back so you can see how he ended up in this situation. To say that Zain’s life is a tough one would be an understatement but it’s how the film shows how so many people in his life struggle. While his parents are certainly at fault in the way they treat him and his siblings, it’s through the quieter moments that you can see that they are second guessing themselves and are making terrible choices as none of the options available to them are good ones. Zain is such a resourceful and strong boy, who has a great sense of empathy in spite of, or because of, the world he’s grown up in that doesn’t see value in children. He’s someone who tries to do the right thing by those he cares about, even if it might mean doing some light thievery to achieve his goal.
When Zain runs away from his parents, he meets undocumented worker Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). She takes him in and the three of them form a new kind of family. The whole cast is brilliant, but this trio were phenomenal. Al Rafeea is an incredible young performer and the way that director Nadine Labaki captures the dynamics between the children in this cast brings out some wonderful performances. There’re moments between Zain and Yonas that can’t have been perfectly scripted due to one of them being one years old, but they feel so sweet, intuitive and natural. The scenes with Zain and Yonas are so natural and are both sweet and heart-breaking at times.
It could’ve been so easy for Capernaum to just be sad and bleak but thanks to an organic screenplay and true to life oddities, there’s laughter to be found here. It also shows that while life and so many of the people in it can be terrible, there are kind people who want to help others with no ulterior motives as well. The way Capernaum is shot neither romanticises nor demonises the poverty Zain and the people he meets face. It’s an honest look at what’s life like for some people and, with its script that has so much natural dialogue, it makes Capernaum feel like you’re a spectator to Zain’s life for a while.
Capernaum is sad but it’s also funny and thoughtful. With a great cast led by Zain Al Rafeea, it’s a film about family, compassion and survival. It’s a film that’s often like a punch to the gut but it’s one that leaves a lasting impression. 5/5.