By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
It seems like every year there’s a unevenly reviewed or completely unknown film that makes it into the Best Foreign Language Film field, and this year it was Capernaum.
Capernaum is on the unevenly reviewed side, labeled as miserablist in its story of a Lebanese boy who sues his parents for the crime of birthing him. This is after he runs away from home when his beloved 11 year old sister is betrothed to a local shopkeeper, ending up the guardian of a Ethiopian baby after living with him and his mother for a spell until she is imprisoned by Lebanese immigration.
Director Nadine Labaki has been on the ascent, until now most notably capturing the TIFF Audience Award, often a precursor for Best Picture, for Where Do We Go Now? in 2011.
You might remember this other film instead, though.
With Capernaum she hits a new level, embracing a social realist cinema that feels of a piece with the Italian greats of the 1950s- Vittorio de Sica would approve of much of what he’d see here. The film is almost a procedural for surviving on the street as a child, never feeling anything less than heartbreakingly real in the scenes where her protagonist, young Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), is carving out a hardscrabble existence either at home among his many similarly neglected brothers and sisters or out in the streets of Beirut.
All of the child actors are incredible, but Zain and the impossibly expressive, acting infant Boluwatife Treasure Bankole both bring a gear little seen from young nonprofessional actors, no doubt bolstered by Labaki’s steady hand, which also brings an immediacy and immersive quality to her imagery through handheld and childs-eye level camerawork.
She keeps that camera tight and the scripting minimal and what she captures is affecting to the extreme, full of so many small touches that feel heart-achingly real, like how Zain sits and stares outside of a sandwich shop but won’t take one when offered, not quite able to believe that small act of kindness is in fact happening.
I agree with the most negative of critics in one aspect- the courtroom conceit is a big stagey and unnecessarily underlines the film’s themes of the particular injustice of living poor and young and hopeless, which aren’t exactly hard to suss out of the main plot if Labaki had just stuck to that.
Capernaum is undoubtedly depressing, but so well acted and directed that I’d gladly watch the further adventures of Zain. Perhaps they’ll be sunnier than these.
Capernaum (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever the action returns to the courtroom
Take a Drink: for small acts of kindness
Take a Drink: every time Cockroach-Man appears on screen
Take a Drink: every time something terrible is implied
Do a Shot: when it’s confirmed