I am sadly quite late to the Capernaum party, and now probably know enough to understand that describing this film as a ‘party’ may be sliiiiiightly inappropriate.
Once a month my colleagues and I choose a film to watch at the Hackney Picturehouse after work, which is a lovely idea except for I am a cinema nazi (not my words) who has seen everything and therefore has to unwillingly (very willingly) dictate what the film is going to be – LUCKILY for them I had missed Capernaum before the Oscars, and a choice between this and Ben is Back was made fairly swiftly.
The first introduction to our core character in Capernaum, a 12 year old boy, is in court as he sues his parents for ‘giving him life.’ We don’t actually know if Zain is 12 as his parents have no documentation (or memory) of when the boy was born, one of a multitude of pretty valid reasons he wants to sue them. As a woman who has repeatedly shouted I DIDN’T ASK TO BE BORN at my Mum and Dad, I was able to easily relate to this Lebanese child born into poverty.
The film tells Zain’s story, moving lightly back and forth between this court case and the run up to his previous court case, carried out because he stabbed someone. You’re interested already right?
Going in, I was worried I would hate this because I’ve so recently be burned by Shoplifters, another foreign language slow burner focusing on the children of poor families growing up resourceful.
Luckily (for me anyway, WHY DOES EVERYONE LOVE SHOPLIFTERS?) that is where the similarities end. Where I found Shoplifters dull and unemotional, Capernaum was gripping and powerful. At the midway point where I would normally begin to struggle, a new strand of story starts which brings with it the introduction of my favourite character: a baby with the acting prowess of Sir Ian McKellen. As Daisy said after she saw this – you know the baby can’t be acting and yet, it is definitely acting.
This is surely a testament to the director and writer Nadine Labaki because how the hell they got half of those scenes shot I will never know. It is pure cinematic gold.
The best thing about this film is the raw talent of the actors, due to Labaki’s commitment to making the majority of those starring non-professionals, succeeding in making everything feel authentic. Several times I would start to think I was watching a documentary – something I would be quickly jerked out of when realising that no doc maker would film this level of bleakness and not intervene.
Quite often in films that are a bit sad or have a tragic ending, I’ll feel all heavy in the chest like someone is sitting on me. During Capernaum, I felt like that for the ENTIRE FILM. It is very beautiful but really very sad, with a story worth telling but hard to watch. One of my colleagues stated in the pub afterwards that he wanted to leave several times throughout as it was just ‘too much.’ Which I do understand.
And yet throughout all this emotional wreckage is actually really brilliant strands of humour. I laughed out loud several times, something I wasn’t expecting but broke up the sadness beautifully. Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee playing our main character, is a phenomenally skilled 12 year old.
And finally, the ending. Without saying too much, the last shot is absolutely perfect.
Turns out your colleagues might not be that grateful you suggested they go and watch such an emotionally challenging film at 6pm on a Monday.
If I had been awarding the foreign language Oscar, (weird they didn’t ask?) I would have chosen Capernaum over Roma every day of the fucking week.