By Jack Dignan
In Cinemas February 7th
I entered this film somewhat of a skeptic. Mummers of its existence have been rattling around since its world premiere at the Cannes film festival back in May, but it wasn’t a film that I ever took much note of until recently, when I finally read the synopsis. Capharnaüm, so the studio-given plot outline goes, details the story of 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), who, while serving a prison sentence for a violent crime, sues his parents for giving birth to him. I’d be lying if I said this premise didn’t intrigue me, but it also felt a little... how does one put this... too much.
Still, I remained optimistic and attended the screening, hopeful and intrigued. As its plot slowly began to get underway, one thing became apparent; this isn’t a film about a boy attempting to sue his parents. And that’s a very good thing. While the court case is depicted in sporadic flash-forwards, it never fully comes into fruition until late into the game. Instead, we follow the life of Zain over a number of weeks, as he escapes his lower class family and finds himself both caring for and being cared by an Ethiopian refugee named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her infant child Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole).
Utilising non-actors and filming in authentic locations, Capharnaüm sets out to tell an intimate, horrific and true to life tale that delves into all different walks of life. There’s strong themes here of immigration, border control and the nightmares endured to maintain survival in lower economic areas, but, above all that, this is a film that begs for your love. It begs you to let it into your life, to share it with others, and to allow yourself to receive it. Told through the eyes of a child, the otherwise bland narrative evolves into a heart-wrenching tale of survival and the implications love has in necessitating that. Caphernaüm is an exhausting watch, no doubt, but also a vital one.
Director, co-writer and supporting actor Nadine Labaki is a powerhouse triple threat. She brings warmth and humanity to a bleak and draining world. Her screenplay, written alongside Jihad Hojeily and Michelle Keserwany, flourishes thanks to expert craftsmanship and impressive debut performances from nearly the entire cast. Young Zain Al Rafeea is a natural in front of the camera, and while the actor’s life ambitions consists of opening a pigeon shop (a noble profession, no doubt), I sincerely hope we see him back on the big screen some time again in the near future.
However, the real standout is Zain’s younger sister Sahar, played by fourteen-year-old Haita Izam. She’s the emotional core of a story like this and, despite limited screen time, serves as the catalyst for most of the narrative. Her performance is unparalleled. Although, sadly, it’s not hard to guess where the whole thing is heading. As the film progresses, and we get closer and closer to the imposing court case, things become increasingly predictable. The ‘mysterious’ crime Zane has committed is obvious right from the get go. Working out how it gets to that stage is a matter of filling in the blanks and watching as all those plot points come into fruition. A lot may not surprise you, but the journey getting there is harrowing and worthwhile.
3 1/2 Stars
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