Brutal Truth: Our Review of ‘Capernaum’

Posted in Film Festivals, Movies, Theatrical, TIFF '18 by - January 11, 2019
Brutal Truth: Our Review of ‘Capernaum’

Poverty is brutal…

Cinema is not only meant to entertain but to get us engaged and thinking on real world issues.  Capernaum is a brutal yet completely compelling look at the tragic nature of child poverty and a dive into the slums looking at those who can’t even take care of themselves much less anyone in their charge.

Capernaum (or Chaos) tells the story of Zain (Zain al Rafeea), a Lebanese boy who sues his parents for the “crime” of giving him life. We follow Zain, a gutsy streetwise child as he flees his negligent parents, survives through his wits on the streets, takes care of Ethiopian refugee Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), being jailed for a crime, and finally, seeks justice in a courtroom.

After you sift through the sorrow and the misery there’s an oddly compelling piece of humanistic cinema as Capernaum gives us a hero who has the sense to fight against a system that was never designed to give him a chance.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year, co-writer and director Nadine Labaki crafts a hellish Oliver Twist type of story that is hard to not only watch, but ultimately look away from.  Sure it’s heavy-handed and occasionally awkward at times, but there’s also a genuine sense of humor that is interposed in the narrative as we see this ensemble of non professional actors give us something that is unmistakably honest.  Actual actors probably would have juts screwed this up but Labaki allows them to exist in the world where she’s created some genuinely depressing scope and scale.

This is a situation that is beyond being a mess, but the characters inside of it have to make the best of it and at least strive against a system that deems them disposable.

These kids maybe uneducated…but they’re smarter than that and where the movie stumbles a little bit is that we never get a sense of genuine sense of hope in the proceedings.  Instead it’s sarcasm and frustration; all of which is earned but where similarly themed films like the recent The Florida Project do a better job at presenting a balanced reality, Capernaum for better or for worse kind of clubs us into submission in a world where young kids can walk around homeless and hungry and we just don’t bat an eyelash.

We are forced to accept the genuinely casual neglect and abuse of these kids which is where the power of the film genuinely lies, but it could have easily been a slog if not for a very well written and compelling leading performance.

Zain al Rafeea as Zain was a pure spitfire of a young man.  He’s not just mad at the world, he’s fucking pissed that he got dropped into his life by parents who are simply not equipped to parents but keep sending out kids into the world.  He encapsulates a rage that we can genuinely feel all the while still trying to take care of not only himself but anyone who comes in his circle.  It’s a performance that allows actual humanity to come through, not for any kind of nobility or imposed value system; he just knows that people much less kids don’t deserve to be treated like he is.

Ultimately, Capernaum plays like a very self aware fairy tale that has gone off the rails.  It’s got its clunky moments but manages to succeed because it captures the genuine frustration of a situation that in no way shape or form should come close to even existing in the modern world.

This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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