Capernaum (***) R

The winner of the Grand Jury prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Capernaum, is a raw and brutally honest look at life in the Middle East of today for a certain segment of the population. Specifically, Beirut, as it is seen through the eyes of its economically challenged twelve-year old protagonist, Zain (Zain al Rafeea in an eye opening performance not to be forgotten). This is a tale that takes its time reaching its eventual destination but once it gets there does it ever pack a wallop.

Capernaum is told effectively in a flashback structure. The opening scenes introduce us to Zain and his parents but not in the usual way. Here they’re both in a courtroom on opposing sides and in the midst of a legal action brought about by the son. Zain is the plaintiff in a case where he’s attempting to sue his parents for his birth. According to his argument his life has been so rotten up until that point that he regrets his parent’s decision to bring him into the world. At first glance this seems like a bit of stretch but by the time the film hits its homestretch it’s pretty clear that Zain’s case is a pretty strong one indeed

Zain’s character is established as being a resourceful sort right from the get-go, a skill that will serve him well in time. He works for a shopkeeper in an effort to bring money into his overcrowded home. He also steals food, schemes and does pretty much whatever he can to take care of his family, growing up much too fast in the process.        


Eventually his sister is married off to his creepy employer and this proves to be too much for Zain. The boy leaves home and eventually befriends an illegal Ethiopian immigrant and her infant son. The woman earns her keep as a janitor during the day while Zain takes care of her son in exchange for room and board. Things go horribly wrong when the woman is arrested for having illegal immigration status, leaving Zain as the only person to take care of the woman’s infant son. Zain’s exhausting efforts to provide for himself and the child provide most of the film’s narrative in the final act.

Capernaum is a bleak movie to be sure and its message seems to be that the universe is indifferent to the suffering of our disenfranchised members of society. Ultimately the movie is hopeful and there are welcome moments of humor from time to time. Overall, this is a film that is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit in spite of the worst odds imaginable. It may be bleak but there’s a lot to embrace in such a wonderfully made film.

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Zain with his baby, in Capernaum

Questions or comments? Write Adam at [email protected].