Capernaum was an ancient Israeli city where Jesus performed some of his most famous miracles — where even the most pitiable and destitute of people could be made whole. The word isn’t casually dropped into conversation all that often these days, but it’s still managed to outlive the city to which it was once attached: Colloquially, it can be used to describe a mess so large that it seems impossible to clean.
“Capernaum” is never uttered (or even alluded to) in Nadine Labaki’s new film of the same name, but this instant Cannes sensation — an astonishing work of social-realism that’s diluted (and ultimately defeated) by an array of severe miscalculations — manages to make good on both definitions. On the one hand, the story of a poor young Lebanese boy who sues his parents to achieve his own personhood resonates with the misery and hope of the Biblical landmark. On the other hand, the movie is maddeningly all over the place, as Labaki captures lightning in a bottle only to leave off the cap. It also features the cutest toddler in the history of cinema (and the best baby performance, to boot), so any criticisms leveled against it may be irrelevant in the end.
It all begins with a convoluted introduction that needlessly confuses the drama to come. An angry little kid named Zain is suing his parents for bringing him into this world. And it’s hard to blame him, even before we get to spend time wallowing in the apathy and abject horror of his daily life. Supposedly 12 years old but lacking the identity papers to prove it, Zain — played by poised Beirut native Zain Alrafeea, whose own circumstances aren’t far removed from those of his character — looks like a much younger child and talks like a much older man. “Fuck this country,” he sighs at one point, his constant swearing always played for anger instead of laughs.
Here’s another gem: “I stabbed a son of a bitch with a knife.” And he did, too. That’s part of the reason why Zain is standing trial, though Labaki’s fractured chronology (which takes 20 minutes or so to sort out) makes even the most basic plot information feel like it’s been tucked away by Christopher Nolan. Through a jittery and erratic bit of montage, we come to understand that Zain endures a hellish kind of hand-to-mouth existence; he’s not homeless, but that may be less of a blessing than a curse.
The apartment he shares with his abusive parents and innumerable siblings (not even he seems to know how many there are) is a loveless hovel that breeds more violence for every baby that’s born into it. Whatever love Zain’s parents may once have been capable of showing their children seems to have been squeezed out of them in the vice of systemic poverty. Alas, that doesn’t preclude them from also being huge assholes, a fact that Labaki forgets at a crucial juncture in the film’s disastrous third act. Either way, Zain’s parents are all too happy to sell his 11-year-old sister off to the steroidal shopkeeper who lives down the street; they give her away for a gaggle of chickens.
All of this is presented with a handheld, fly-on-the-wall intimacy that seems miles removed from the gentle remove of Labaki’s previous work. But for every moment that feels more witnessed than staged (a stairwell altercation all but appears to shock the film into non-fiction), there’s another that feels glaringly artificial. Every time you get lost in the sweep and bustle of Zain’s scrappy existence, Labaki cuts back to that blasted trial, a tactic that repeatedly limits the film’s story and stunts any semblance of character growth. Zain starts off as a furious little kid who resents his parents for having him, and he stays that way until the bitter end. His only change stems from an encounter that affirms what Labaki doesn’t seem to appreciate about his parents, as Zain — after all of his unspeakable hardships — finds a humanity in him that’s greater than any that’s ever been shown to him.
Running away from home, Zain meets an unregistered Ethiopian refugee named Rahil (Yordanos Shifera, an unregistered Ethiopian refugee herself), and her brain-meltingly adorable son, Yonas (Treasure Bankhole, a baby girl in real life). He also meets an old man who dresses up as Cockroach-Man (a knockoff Spider-Man costume with a cockroach on the crest) as a ploy to drive traffic to his theme park, but his real task is to give us a reprieve between the horrors Zain’s escaping and the ones yet to come.
The middle section of “Capernaum” is where the film truly comes alive, as the sweet Rahil vanishes for reasons unknown, leaving Yonas to become Zain’s responsibility. The 45 or so minutes that follow are basically a single blitz of miserablist imagery, as Zain drags his ridiculously cute new “brother” around the city in search of food or escape (it was a brilliant move to cast Yonas at an age where the character was old enough to understand simple commands, but too young to talk back).
One thing happens after another, the days blurring together as Labaki’s pummeling montage uses blunt force to convey the relentlessness of surviving on the streets. It’s a bold choice, and the documentary-like aesthetic conflicts with the sheer velocity of the storytelling, but the relative purity of this stretch only further exposes the falseness of the film’s other sections.
This section grows repetitive, but that was likely by design. More frustrating is that Zain remains stuck in place, and in more ways than one. Having already displayed the full range of his empathy and resentment in the film’s first section, he’s left little to do here besides grow more desperate. Which he does. Khaled Mouzanar’s propulsive score helps take the edge off (at times this feels like the “Beasts of the Southern Wild” of impoverished Middle Eastern cinema), but Zain’s existence nevertheless becomes a carnival of horrors so inhumane that “Capernaum” begins to make the neo-realist classics of Vittorio De Sica and the Dardenne brothers feel like fairy tales.
It’s a peculiar gambit, the kind of rhetorical argument that an American film may never have dared to make, but Labaki’s goal is to make us pity Zain’s predicament so completely that we understand why he would sue his parents for the thoughtlessness of conceiving him. “Capernaum” is a movie that wants its audience to empathize with its protagonist so intensely that you agree he should never have been born. It’s a fascinating (if obviously counterintuitive) approach, but one that’s frustrated by the literalness with which Labaki unpacks it.
At a dark time when even affluent white Americans are questioning the ethics of bringing new life into this world — when a Paul Schrader movie about a rural country priest is confronting a more existential version of the same despair that haunts Zain here — it makes sense for Labaki to put these concerns on trial, and to do so through the garish prism of people who are forgotten as soon as they’re born. Even Zain’s parents feel hopeless (“we’re insects, we’re parasites” his bleary-eyed father cries), and they have the identity papers that everyone else in the film is hopelessly lost without.
But it’s a mistake for the film to render its verdict in a court of law, when all of Labaki’s evidence is found on the streets. More than that, Labaki blunders by misjudging the power of her own manipulations. The ending of the film assumes that its theatrics have convinced us that Zain’s parents are a symptom of the same crisis that affects their children, and they are, but they’re also terrible people on top of that.
Zain’s kindness makes it clear how far the apple has fallen from the tree. It’s bad enough for the trial sections to be so forced and poorly dramatized, but it’s so much worse that the whole charade is predicated on false terms. By the time we arrive at the film’s cringe-inducing final shot, “Capernaum” seems to be actively objecting to the humanity of its own argument — Labaki works so hard to earn a basic kind of empathy that most people will bring with them into the theater, only to inadvertently leave us with the suggestion that some people don’t deserve it. We’re asked to agree with Zain that some parents shouldn’t bring children into this world, while also celebrating the fact that he’s here. Every emotion is negated by another, until we’re left with nothing but the mess we were presented from the start. Capernaum, indeed.
“Capernaum” premiered in Competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it in the United States later this year.