Capernaum opens with Zain (Zain Al Rafeea)—a young Lebanese boy, who is 12 years old by anyone’s best guess—suing his parents for giving him life. Zain is already serving five years for stabbing someone and has retained the service of an attorney (cameo by director Nadine Lebaki) to hold his parents’ accountable for having children they had no means of caring for. Over the course of the proceedings, the story of how Zain came to commit a violent assault is revealed.
This film is a series of gut punches. A lot of the story revolves around child abuse—be it physical beatings, verbal tirades, or child marriage—and poverty, and the film doesn’t hold back. That being said, everything is presented as ‘this is how it is.’ It’s entirely appropriate that Lebaki cast herself as Zain’s lawyer in the film, because there is a sense that she is laying out evidence. This is carried out not only through the screenplay (which Lebaki helped write), but also through Christopher Aoun’s cinematography. The camera is often at least a little pulled back, particularly during scenes of conflict, showing us all of the players. So for instance, when Zain is trying to rescue his sister Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam) from his parents, and receives a beating for his efforts, we see a wider shot of the struggle, despite it being filmed in a cramped staircase. But for all the abuse we see Zain’s parents inflict upon their children, Lebaki still presents both sides of the case by flashing back to the courtroom where the parents Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Yousef) defend themselves. We may not believe their reasons justify the damage they do, but we still see them as fully-rounded human beings, rather than one-dimensional monsters.
The star of the film Al Rafeea is a Syrian refugee—ironic, since his character pretends to be a Syrian refugee in one scene—and was working as a delivery boy in Beirut, Lebanon when Lebaki discovered him. He delivers an amazing performance, perhaps the best because it’s so understated. The scenes where Al Rafeea is most emotional are limited, with the young man taking many hardships in stride, saving the raw rage and despair for key moments in the film.
While the film is principally about Lebanon’s impoverished children, it also addresses the hardships faced by refugees. Zain makes friends with a young Syrian girl (Farah Hasno), and is taken in by Eritrean refugee Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who is fighting not to get deported and whose story we also learn. Shiferaw also delivers a fantastic performance, and her story illustrates how a lack of support for women in her situation makes them and their children more vulnerable to human traffickers.