His name is Zain, and he is standing in the office of a police station in Beirut, Lebanon, in his underwear. He hasn’t seen a bath in days and looks malnourished, his face is grey with sleeplessness and worry. The doctor who comes to examine him assesses his age at 12 or 13. Zain himself doesn’t know, his parents can’t or won’t produce a birth certificate – maybe there never was one. Zain, like his siblings and his parents, is an illegal citizen in his own country. Because of the pressure of abject poverty and a war-torn economy, the parents abuse their kids verbally and physically. Zain does what he can to protect his siblings, most of all his younger sister Sahar because he is sure that his parents will try to marry her with a shopkeeper.
Nadine Labaki’s Capharnaüm isn’t told in chronologial order, so it sounds like a cheap plot point if a young boy sues his parents for giving life to him, but the rest of the film will make his case. Of course they are victims of poverty, too, but the way they treat their children is horrific. The last shreds of my emphaty went out the window when they sold 11 year-old Sahar to the shopkeeper. Zain, who has nothing but abuse and accusations for his mother and father, runs away to a fairground where he meets Rahil, a cleaning woman and washroom attendant who raises her young son Yonas in one of the filthy cubicles which she claims is out of order. She takes Zain in so she can go to work.
There are two funny moments in the movie; other than that, the pressure of poverty and the state of neglect Zain finds himself in throughout the two-hour movie are hard to take in. Some critics find it a prime example of poverty porn or of oscar bait. I utterly disagree, even if I had problems with the saccharine soundtrack. Nobody in the main roles has any acting experience, but they all seem to play some aspect of themselves. Zain is played by Zain Al Raafea, a Syrian refugee; Rahil is played by Ethiopian Yordanos Shiferaw, who worked as a cleaning lady for years. They do more than what their roles demand. Zain Al Raafea is in almost every scene, and he is able to carry the movie.
Rahil gets arrested for letting her fake papers expire, and Zain has to take care of Yonas, putting him into a dented cooking pot and fixing that onto a skateboard he steals from the neighbors’ boy. It’s the only way he can go out and make a living. Zain may be downtrodden and without illusions, but he is ingenious in finding sources of income. He takes his life from day to day because there is no alternative. He is too honest to beg, fiercely protects his siblings from parental abuse, and only steals stuff if he sees no other solution. He gets beatings from junkies who claim his dope is too weak. It’s a stunning performance in a rather good film. I only know Labaki from her 2007 romantic comedy Caramel, where women meet as employees and customers in a beauty salon, and in which she directed herself in the main role. Here, in Capharnaüm, she proves she can handle dramatic material, too.
If you want, you can look at Caphernaüm as a kind of companion piece to Kore-eda’s Shoplifters; both movies are about unusual families fighting their way out of poverty, although the Japanese family gravitates towards a common center, slowly accepting a new member, whereas the Lebanese family is dysfunctional and breaking apart. Kore-eda is polite enough to only hint at some of the horrors in his movie; Labaki spares us almost nothing. The beatings that Zain has to suffer seem real, despite the shaky-cam and fast cutting. Zain takes it all in his stride, but he is mad and unconsolable when he, in jail himself for getting revenge for his sister, tells his parents that it is wrong of them to have so many children. His mother is pregnant again, and he already knows how that will go.