Cannes 2018 Review: Jury Prize Winner ‘Capharnaum’ Examines the Brutal Realities of Poverty

 “Why do you want to sue your parents?”

“For giving me life.”

This is how Capharnaum begins its onslaught of bleakness, in a statement reflective of emotional exhaustion rather than genuine financial interest. The origin of these words is twelve-year old-Zain and his decision that comes after a lifetime of abuse, neglect, and poverty. The film’s narrative expands as the child explains what has led him to the courtroom in which he stands, through a series of flashbacks leading to his arrest for “stabbing a son of a bitch,” and his counter-accusation against his parents.

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Zain Alrafeea in Cafarnaúm (2018)

Zain’s harrowing tale commences in an overcrowded apartment in the slums of a Lebanese city, where he lives with his parents and several siblings. He splits his time between working in a grocery store and gathering prescription meds to be smuggled into a nearby prison. His family barely exist as humans in the eyes of the authorities, as the fees to be registered at birth form a barrier between the rich and the poor. Amongst all his struggles, Zain’s younger sister, Sahar, provides a sole source of warmth in his life, as his parents range from negligent to actively abusive.

When Sahar begins menstruating, however, Zain realises that he will soon lose his sister to marriage. Resourceful as ever, he diligently washes her underwear, and removes his vest so that she may stuff the fabric down her pants; a makeshift sanitary towel that makes for an amusing yet tragic image. He plots their escape, agreeing with a local bus driver that he may sit his sister on his knee for half-fare. For a moment, it seems that Sahar and Zain may be allowed their happiness–but happiness cannot last in a world as harsh as his.

In one of the most disturbing scenes of the film, Sahar is dragged quite literally from Zain’s arms, and bundled off to her awaiting husband/rapist. Distraught at the loss of his beloved sister, the boy flees his hometown seemingly aimlessly, until he comes to a ramshackle coastal town. Here he will experience true responsibility and freedom over his life, as he exists without the shackles of his parents for the first time.

It would have been easy for director Nadine Labaki to depict Zain as an innocent angel, and his parents as inhumane monsters, but Labaki is too great a filmmaker to fall into such a farcical trap. “These are my children,” Zain’s mother tells the jury through her tears, “Do you think I want them to live like this?” Zain’s parents, situated as they are for an audience to easily hate them, are not the villains of this piece–Capharnaum is too great a film for such reductive characterisation. Rather, they are flawed victims of a system that creates hopeless situations and subjects the poor to impossible decisions: forced marriage or a life of impoverishment, drug smuggling or certain starvation, overcrowding or abandonment.

This is not to say that Zain’s parents are blameless for their abusive behaviour. Instead, Labaki crafts a fictional environment rich enough to parallel the complexity of human society. Within this environment, a variety of experiences are represented to provide a complete picture of destitution, with care given to show the unrivaled love that many poor parents have for their children. Following the trial, Rahil, an undocumented Ethiopian immigrant who is struggling to gather the money she needs to pay for papers, takes Zain into her home so that he may watch her son, Yonas. Her circumstances mean that she must hide her child away or he’ll be taken from her. Regardless, she is a doting mother, and a much-needed contrast against the neglectful parenting we have previously seen in this story.

Equally, Zain himself must carry the burden of another life independently, a challenge which his own parents have failed to complete. Understandably, the child stumbles. In one scene, our protagonist ties Yonas to the side of the road by his ankle; he walks to the end of the street and stops to look back at the impact of his decision. Through his pain, he sees his own past reflected at him, a conspicuous reminder of the neglect he himself has been running from. Caught between love and a need to survive, the boy returns to the toddler. He has not yet lost the hope that poverty tore from his parents long ago.

This flickering light is what drives Capharnaum. Zain flares with emotional intensity, experiencing fierce anger and tremendous love in equal quantities as he navigates his fraught existence. His natural protectiveness for those weaker than himself can be found in his relationships with both his sister Sahar and his adoptive “brother” Yonas. Zain mimics a parent as his innocence saps away, clinging on to a morality that is motivated by the strength of his heart.

The film careers into melodrama at moments and may be too overwhelming for some viewers, but this does not disservice its overall impact: Zain’s story is deeply rooted in reality. Labaki’s use of non-professional actors only adds to this honest aura, with a series of raw performances worthy of the highest praises. Here is a drama where all finesse is carved away to create a piece that depicts the true cruelty of what civilisation has created: a society whereby a twelve-year-old boy must fight for his right to be recognised as human.

For the rest of our Cannes 2018 coverage, click here.

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