Capernaum is a Lebanese drama that was chosen to compete for the Palme D’Or in Cannes film festival and won the jury prize. It was also chosen to represent Lebanon in the Oscars race for best film in a foreign language and managed to snatch one of the 5 nominations, and the question is, is it worthy? When I read the premise of the film before I saw it, I had my doubts. A child suing his parents for having him! Felt like an episode in a UN simulation programs for kids. To be honest, this particular aspect remains a point of weakness in the dramatic weight of the film, coupled with a message that the film tried to push more than once but, other than that, we’re witnessing a cinematic triumph.
In the beginning of Capernaum we see Zain being admitted into a junior detention facility after committing a violent crime. Then we see him being taken to court because he’s suing somebody. He’s suing his own parents for the crime of having him! During the trial he tells the story of his journey in the slums of Beirut which ended up with the crime he committed.
Everything we witness with Zain in his journey is realistic dark cinema at its best. The film is a strong shock though it doesn’t tell us something we don’t already know, and I mean “us” as citizens of the Arab world. The ones who come across street children or slums inhabitants regularly. I think this is important because I was worried we became generally numb towards those issues, and the crazy thing is that I don’t think the film is exaggerating on anything. It’s just so real and touchable that it feels like a documentary, and I mean that in a good way. The way its acted, filmed and edited made me feel like I’m offered a first row seat to follow Zain’s life. While the extent of how dark, tragic and heartbreaking it is made me not want to. I’m speaking nightmares! The film offers a particular nightmare that haunted me for a good 5 years of my life, and it was so painful that I used to block it from my mind. Only to find it with its full details in front of me on the screen! I blame the film director Nadine Labaki for my pain! The crazy thing is that I can’t claim she was being too melodramatic to blackmail me into shock and tears. We live in this world and we’re sure it’s happening every single moment though, again, we don’t really want to admit it.
Just like Abou Bakr Shawky did in Yommedine, Nadine Labaki follows the hard path to make everything simple. More like, why would I spend so much time trying to imitate hell? Let’s just go and film there! Most scenes are taking place in their real environment and it minimizes the hassle of production design. Filming depends heavily on handheld cameras and it minimizes the need for careful framing and composition. Though that was reserved for some key scenes and they were breathtaking visually. I don’t believe there were storyboards and scene plans, and that’s because the first cut of the film was 12 hours long. Which took 2 years to be edited into the released 2 hours cut. This is not the norm in feature films guys, we’re more accustomed to this in documentaries. Additionally, the acting cast had some professional actors but stars first timers in the title roles. Zain Al Rafeea who played Zain & Yordanos Shiferaw who played Rahil. They weren’t acting for the most part, they were just reliving a life they have seen and known, and the outcome of using them is amazing. In some films executed in the same way, you appreciate the performances but you always get a sense of amateurism in it. Not in this one, they truly delivered unforgettable performances, filled with moments of complicated expression, especially that dialogue in mostly minimal.
In the filmmaking process, this minimizes technical complications and maximizes artistic challenges. Putting more of the strings in the hands of the filmmaker and the key crew members, and turning his, or her life in this case, into continuous suffering. If Labaki’s suffering can always promise such outcome, then I wish her a life of pain from all my heart.
Capernaum is a great film and a must watch at least once .. or rather exactly once. No really, it will take a top spot in the list of best films I’ve seen and will never watch again. Even the successful attempts of comedy made me feel more sad. That doesn’t take anything from its value of course and I really believe that, if it wasn’t up against Roma this year, it would’ve been the top runner for the Oscar prize.