Monday, January 28, 2019

Movie Review: Capernaum

Capernaum ** / *****
Directed by: Nadine Labaki   
Written by: Nadine Labaki & Jihad Hojeily & Michelle Keserwany and Georges Khabbaz & Khaled Mouzanar.
Starring: Zain Al Rafeea (Zain), Yordanos Shiferaw (Rahil), Boluwatife Treasure Bankole (Yonas), Kawsar Al Haddad (Souad, the Mother), Fadi Yousef (Selim, the Father), Haita 'Cedra' Izzam (Sahar, the Sister), Alaa Chouchnieh (Aspro), Nadine Labaki (Nadine), Elias Khoury (The Judge), Nour El Husseini (Assaad), Joseph Jimbazian (Cockroach Man / Harout), Samira Chalhoub (Daad), Farah Hasno (Maysoun), Michele Sedad (Michele Sedad), Bahia Jaber (Tante Bahia), Tamer Ibrahim (Abou Assaad), Mohamad Chabouri (Raouf).
It is very easy to make an audience feel pity and sympathy for a child onscreen when you basically put him through a tour of misery for two straight hours. You would have to be a monster to not feel something for Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) in Capernaum, who basically has to ensure one horrible thing after another after another (after another) for two straight hours, before arriving at a conclusion that somehow wants to make you feel, better, I guess? There is undeniable skill in the making of Capernaum – director Nadine Labaki trying for some sort of neo-realist feel here, akin to the Dardenne brothers or Vittorio De Sica – and visually, there are times when she achieves that. And her heart is in the right place – many of the actors in the film are real people, whose own experiences are not much better than those in the movie – but she takes such a sledgehammer approach to depicting all the misery on display here that’s it’s impossible not feel manipulated as you watch. It doesn’t take that much skill to evoke an emotional response by basically tormenting a 12-year-old for two hours – and even less, when you give that twelve-year-old a one-year-old to look after, also in a horrible situation.
The film is set in Lebanon and has the very awkward framing device of having Zain – already serving a five-year prison sentence for a violent crime (he admits, enthusically, to stabbing the “son-of-a-bitch” – but in one of the many phony dramatics, the movie doesn’t reveal who until right near the end of the movie – and gives us a few suspects along the way) – who is now suing his parents. Why? For being born. His parents are dirt poor, have any number of children (seriously, I have no idea, it felt like every time we flashed into their apartment, there were more children) – and never had the money to get any of the kids their “papers” (there is a lot of talk about papers in Capernaum – so much so that it’s odd that the film never really explains anything about them). Needing money, they don’t mind selling Zain’s beloved 11-year-old sister Sahar (Haita Cedra Izzam) to a middle aged store owner to be a bride. For Zain – who has already endured so much – this is the final straw (the long stair away fight sequence, where he tries to prevent it from happening, is the best scene in the film) – and boards a us to run away. He ends up at an amusement park, and is taken in by Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) – an illegal immigrant from Ethiopian – both the character and actress. She is trying to find a way to stay in Lebanon so she can care for her son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole – a one-year old girl, who gives far and away the best performance in the movie). But when she disappears to – sucked into a system that doesn’t care – Zain is forced to care for Yonas all by himself.
Capernaum is essentially just a series of manipulative scenes that place Zain – and later Zain and Yonas – into danger, and then pulls them back from the brink, just to thrust them right back into danger again. The device of the court room trail is confused and confusing – it’s a ridiculous lawsuit, meant for rhetorical purposes only I’m sure – but it puts the audience into the awkward situation of either agreeing that Zain – the character we actually like – never should have been born (and hence, not here) or agreeing with his horrible parents. Labaki’s moral outlook on everyone is completely black-and-white – there are no shades of grey on any character, who is either basically a Saint, or one of the worst people in the world. And she just keeps on hammering and hammering you with this miserablism is scene after scene.
Capernaum has been a popular film since its debut at Cannes in May – where it won a Special Jury Prize – and it’s been winning prizes ever since, including being nominated for the best Foreign Language film Oscar this year. In a way, it’s not surprising – the film values creating an emotional response out of the audience more than anything else, and that it does. But it does so in such a cheap and fraudulent way that even as you worry about what is going to happen to Zain and Yonas, you feel angry at Labaki for placing them in this sort of danger to begin with.

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