“Capernaum,” winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes and nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award, is about chaos. Set in and around the Lebanese city of Beirut, it follows a young boy fending for himself—and others—in a cold, anarchic world. The movie depicts an unsolvable mess, a miserable, self-perpetuating quagmire of poverty—sometimes heart-rending, sometimes overdone—but doesn’t traffic in solutions, or hope. There’s no call to action or insight. Instead, “Capernaum” wallows in its despair, totally eschewing uplift or catharsis. It’s not a good time.
Still, it’s a powerful, gut-wrenching work of social realism. We follow Zain, who lives in a Beirut slum with his parents and many siblings. Zain has seemingly been tasked with taking care of the whole lot: In the morning he works a job at Assaad’s convenience store, then sells juice on the street until nightfall. He doesn’t go to school; no one in his family does.
A twelve year-old caretaker, Zain is devastated when his sister Sahar—one year younger than him—is given away to Assaad for marriage. Zain’s love for Sahar is palpable, so when their father carries her off to be married, he’s lost. Zain runs away, getting on a bus and never looking back.
The narrative keeps flashing forward and backward, to a courtroom scene in which Zain, his parents and Rahil, an Ethiopian woman who takes Zain in, testify. The boy’s been sentenced to five years in prison, and now he’s suing his parents. “I stabbed a sonofabitch,” Zain tells the judge.
Back in time, Zain befriends Rahil, who works in a theme park on an expiring work visa. Rahil, played by Yordanos Shiferaw, is determined to survive. A single mother living in a shantytown, she can’t afford childcare so has to bring her son Yonas to work with her, hiding him under a blanket in a cart and letting him sleep in a bathroom stall she tells people is out of order.
Rahil takes pity on Zain, letting him come to her home, and, out of desperation, lets him watch her son while she’s at work. Until, a few days later, Rahil doesn’t come home.
What follows is my favorite part of the film: There’s a joyously transcendent image of Yonas sitting in a pot on top of a skateboard pulled by Zain as they navigate through a crowded market. It doesn’t hurt that Yonas, played by newcomer Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, is one of the cutest babies to ever be put on film.
Once again, Zain is relegated to the role of caretaker. It’s reminiscent of the Japanese film
“Grave of the Fireflies,” in which an adolescent boy must care for his young sister in WWII Japan, barely subsisting on whatever scraps of food they can muster. There’s similar tragedy here of naivete and ignorance: How can Zain take care of a baby when he’s only twelve?
He does his best. In a dry, darkly comedic scene, the boy pretends to be a Syrian refugee at an aide commissary. He plops Yonas on the table in front of the humanitarian worker, telling her how they “crawled, like Rambo” from their home in Aleppo after their neighbor sold them out. Again, the film seems to be casting blame: The seemingly cynical division of resources when all sorts of people are starving to death. Thankfully, the worker gives Zain some diapers and a can of evaporated milk.
The situation recalls “The Florida Project”—also about a child, far too young, being forced to deal with the harsh realities related to class inequality. But in the impoverished sections of Beirut, far from the supersaturated Floridian dreamland, it’s hard to imagine any sort of escape for Zain or Rahil or Yonas, or anyone else we see eking out a wretched existence.
Told in a close-up, handheld documentary style, “Capernaum” feels real. The filmmakers also endeavor to tell us that no, this isn’t just one story, but a representation of an endemic problem in Lebanon, if not the world. Several times throughout the film, a drone shot zooms out, emphasizing the massive scale. Again, real, and depressing.
Back in the courtroom, Zain’s parents renege on any of the blame—they’re horrible but, the movie suggests, aren’t entirely responsible for what’s happened. His father tells him that he’s a cockroach, that he’d better recognize that and move on. The state apparatus: The prisons, the courts, the police, figure heavily. Always cold, removed, meting out punishment. It’s a true, though worn, criticism, that often the poor only interact with the government through the police interference—the cockroaches only matter when one of them needs to be locked up.
“Capernaum” sympathizes with its characters misery but doesn’t do anything with it. It runs up against a problem that affects documentaries too: Reality is inherently despair-inducing, so how do you create something that people will actually want to watch? Despite deeply empathizing with Zain and his situation, I don’t think I’d recommend for others to do the same, unless they want to be emotionally devastated. “Capernaum” isn’t quite misery porn but lacks any sort of uplift or call to action. Society is condemned, and no solutions are given. It’s real—real depressing.