The film opens with a courtroom scene in which a young boy is suing his parents for the crime of giving birth to him. We also learn that the boy, Zain, has a previous conviction himself for stabbing somebody. What follows is then a retelling of what led the child to this point, handcuffed and standing in court facing his parents. The harsh conditions of his family life, living in a small apartment building with his sisters, forced to go out shoplifting and picking up prescription drugs illegally to later sell on. It is a brutalising experience for the child who watches the atrocities around him with a resigned scowl. His only real companion is his sister, eleven year old Sahar. In one example of the horrific situation they are in, caught between religious fundamentalism, war, and parents who are either oblivious or unable to alleviate their suffering, Zain must help his sister by stealing sanitary products to hide the fact she is now menstruating. In a final straw, she is sold to another man in the town. Zain runs away from home and is taken in by another Ethiopian refugee, Rahil, whose infant son he begins to take care of while she is at work.
The film is a heart-breaking portrayal of many aspects of the refugee experience, touching on cultural and political issues, without making any over statements about them. This is a world that many audience members will be unfamiliar with, one of child abuse, extremism, people traffickers, crime and extreme poverty. The film is directed by Nadine Labaki who also wrote the screenplay along with Jihad Hojaily and Michelle Keserwany. “Capernaum” is a film that overloads the senses with the sights and sounds of the city, taking your right inside the world of the characters. The dusty backstreets and the dingy apartments reveal a forgotten world where societal outcasts are forced to dwell. The camera work is largely handheld, cutting occasionally to fantastic aerial shots that show the sprawling chaos of the city from above. This helps gives a sense of immediacy to the action. The script is very well written, weaving together several strands expertly and raising important issues without ever losing sight of its central characters. This is absolutely Zain’s story and while he is a symbol of the refugee experience at large, he is nevertheless an endearing and believable character in his own right. The actor, Zain Al Rafeea, does an incredible job with some highly emotionally charged scenes. Likewise Cedra Izam as Sahar and Farah Hasno as syrian refugee Maysoun. The other outstanding performance is that of Yordanos Shiferaw who plays Rahil. Despite the bleak story the film is not without moments of levity, even comedy, that help throw into relief the almost overwhelming plight of these people.
“Capernaum” is an outstanding work that is bold and engaging, throwing a light on an important issue while never stooping to melodrama. The tragedy of the characters is entirely believable and made more poignant in that it is avoidable. Telling the story through the eyes of a child gives a fresh perspective and making it such a personal journey also helps convey the collateral suffering that occurs following conflict. Absolutely worth a watch for a masterclass in storytelling and film making that more than do justice to the message.