Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum begins in a Beirut courtroom, where we meet Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a young boy whose age is a mystery since he has no birth certificate. Zain is serving a sentence for a violent crime and uses this opportunity before the judge to tell him that he wants to sue his parents (Kawsar Al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Yousef), who are also present, for giving him life. It’s a heart-wrenching introduction into the world of the film—one inhabited by humans who are as disposable as pests, parents who lend their child to their landlord in lieu of paying rent, and children whose diets consist of sugarcoated ice cubes. And that’s on a good day.
This initial sequence feels like a punch in the stomach as well as a cinematic promise: to expose rather than exploit misery. But this unspoken promise isn’t one that Labaki keeps, as the film progresses into a miserabilist tale awfully aware of the heartstrings it wants to pull. Following the opening scene, Labaki traces the history of violence that led to this point in Zain’s life. It’s a tale in the vein of Pixote and Central Station, of children bearing burdens that could make the most resilient of adults crumble, of unfed and unloved children rejected by parents who were unfed and unloved themselves, and who find one guardian angel of sorts along their paths of doom and gloom.
For Zain, that figure is Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal Ethiopian immigrant who takes him in after he runs away from his broken home, a place where violence is the only language anyone speaks, and where he sees his younger sister (Haita Izzam) essentially become currency. Rahil seems to have every intention of raising Zain alongside her one-year-old son. They’re a family as makeshift as the meals the impoverished scrape together from the area’s trash heaps, but this configuration doesn’t last long. Being illegal, Rahil lives under constant fear of being caught and is ultimately taken to jail, leaving Zain for fend for himself and take care of Rahil’s child.
Al Rafeea delivers an impressive performance, emanating documentary-esque urgency and spontaneity. But his naturalness, however uncanny, only makes the film’s maneuverings seem all the more obvious. Labaki tries to shed light on too many topical issues at once: domestic violence, migrant crisis, human trafficking, pedophilia, and so on. The filmmaker seems unconvinced of the dramatic force of the very environment she’s chosen to portray, instead pursing plot machinations that would be more fitting for a stylized thriller.
Throughout Capernaum, we’re returned to that initial courtroom sequence. Labaki literalizes the misery of her characters, who are often too analytical about their conditions, at times referring to their home as a pigsty and their life as a curse, even though every visual cue in the film has already established that. Labaki even zeros in on the brown-colored water coming out of a tap and makes sure we see how broken the pipes are.
The more time we spend with the characters the more their despair becomes pornographic, especially in comparison to the poetic moments that dot the film and that the viewer may wish were its entire focus. Most interesting of those is a strange old man dressed in a makeshift superhero costume who appears to Zain in a couple of scenes. Although his outfit looks like that of Spider-Man from afar, the insignia on his chest is really that of a cockroach. This is a much more fitting figure, in its ghostly subtlety, than the actual roaches we see crawling in the character’s slummy shacks.