Capernaum Movie Review: For humanity's sake, watch this film!

Updated: Jun 21, 2019, 17:39 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Apart from engaging, entertaining, if a great film can't generate this level of extreme empathy, what good is it anyway.


U/A: Drama
Director: Nadine Labaki
Cast: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole

There's a brief moment in this film, when the poor little boy (Zain Al Rafeea) here, who literally drives the entire narrative/story, is resting on the floor under an open sky, as military helicopters fly past. It's obvious proclamation of the price of politics and war on the young.

And yet, it's the only time you sense that the film (even if for a second), is looking at anything outside of the survival instincts of an incredibly sorted/smart/stubborn child, negotiating through slums, homelessness, parental neglect, illegal residential-status, love, hate, kindness—life itself.

Capharnaum, the title, I'm guessing (based on the Internet), translates to chaos. It's an Arabic film, set in Lebanon. And it is the ultimate humanistic document. Everything you know about the Middle East, human rights, or refugee crisis (for that matter), will seem like superficial news-jargon in its comparison.

Capaharnaum swept top awards at Cannes. It is playing at select theatres near you (in Mumbai, and elsewhere in India). The film officially released in 2018. In the interim the anti-immigrant sentiment has grown even worse across the globe. So much so that even closer home, you hear politicians comparing dispossessed humans (and children) to "termites"—based on a place of birth that they had no choice/control over.

This film in fact pretty much starts off before a judge, where the li'l kid sues his parents "for being born" in the first place. No, it's not a courtroom drama. That anti-natalist lawsuit isn't as much the point of the picture as the fact that the boy's been imprisoned for having stabbed someone. This sets off a series of flashbacks; almost playing out like a suspense-thriller of sorts.

Writer-director-actor Nadine Labaki's screenplay is nothing short of a masterpiece, going back and forth, with timely reveals, effectively joining unrelated dots. The scenes aren't so patiently staged. You wish to go back to some, to feel them again. But, of course, you can't. There's something about a movie shot entirely in Dogme, documentary-style—diving deeper and deeper into real moments/locations—that after a point, it comes become hard to believe you're watching a film at all. This is neo-realism of the digital age.

Once you're in it—and this could take some time—it's harder still to get out of the place; mentally, or otherwise. I'm still reeling under this film, while it's been a few hours since. If that interferes with the content of this review (maybe should've waited a day); well, so be it.

It's shot like a dream; or maybe more like nightmare, as it were. For darkness in some parts of the world lurks in daylight. The lead character Zain is named after the brilliant lead actor. This can't be a coincidence. That boy is himself a Syrian refugee that Labaki screen-tested off the street to play the main role—along with other non-professional actors—making it evidently impossible for the viscerally moved audience to tell the performers from their parts.

There's an adorable, yet doggedly protective streak in the little boy, which somehow borders on hope. Don't know what to make of it, given all that we're passing on to future generations is a sense of complete hopelessness, over man-made religions/borders.

I watched portions of this pic, with my slightly-teary eyes half closed; wishing that the boy pulls through it all—knowing that something or the other will befall him. And yeah, he deserves a hug. Apart from engaging, entertaining, if a great film can't generate this level of extreme empathy, what good is it anyway.

Watch the trailer of Capernaum

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