This kid is definitely going places!
Synopsis: A politically-charged fable, featuring mostly non-professional actors, about a child who launches a lawsuit against his parents. (Mongrel Media)
Starring: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole
Writers: Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, and Michelle Keserwany
Director: Nadine Labaki
Rating: 14A (Canada)/R (United States)
Running Time: 126mins
Being one of the five films nominated for Best Foreign Language, it is easy to see why Capernaum got there after watching it. Now some films are just depressing and while there isn’t necessarily wrong with that, the better films make us care about what’s going on throughout their duration. This Lebanese film does exactly that, telling the story of a 12-year-old boy named Zain (Al Rafeea) who would launch a lawsuit against his parents for giving birth to him.
Zain’s parents weren’t exactly the nicest people to either him or the rest of his family in a way that could be described as child abuse and neglect. This forced Zain to grow up faster than he probably should have considering his young age. It’s debatable that he was more mature than his parents. He did not take any guff from them or anyone else for that matter. He and his family lived in poverty which would make his life even tougher. The story would transition between courtroom scenes and scenes where we would get to experience Zain’s hard life as he would tell his story.
While these transitions between the courtroom scenes and Zain’s story weren’t always the smoothest, each were strong in their owns ways though there were much less courtroom scenes. Zain’s story was of course the strongest, rightfully getting the focus, and kind of stole the thunder of the courtroom scenes. Starting with a courtroom scene, the film’s circular storytelling structure meant that in order to get back to get to the beginning, the story during its final third arguably felt rushed in order to get there by the end. Perhaps that structure wasn’t the best choice but the story as a whole was still compelling to watch despite its lack of balance.
Watching the film, it is clear that Zain’s life wasn’t always easy and the film may go a little too far out of its way to make sure we don’t forget this fact. Also, his parents are underdeveloped as characters. Because of this, Zain’s story may seem simple as a result but it didn’t make it any less powerful or emotional to watch. His story was a tragic one with a fair share of memorable characters and adversity for him to overcome, however, it would also feature plenty of lighter moments as well that were fun to watch thanks to Zain’s unique personality, a sharp script didn’t hurt either. He was engaging to watch as it was easy to become emotionally invested in him and his journey.
Ultimately, the film would not have worked if not for Al Rafeea’s amazing performance as Zain. In his first ever acting role, he single-handedly carries the film and was compelling to watch throughout. While most child actors have the reputation of being on the annoying side, he would buck that trend here by acting beyond his years, showing both considerable range and emotion. He and his transformation over the course of the film were certainly something to behold. Featuring a cast of primarily non-actors, it was definitely hard to tell that this was the case as they all held their own.
Overall, Capernaum is a powerful and engaging character drama whose many themes leave a deep emotional impact despite its arguably heavy-handed and simplistic nature. It may not stick its landing but many of its flaws are easy to overlook thanks to an amazing lead performance by the young Zain Al Rafeea in his first ever acting role.