Dir: Nadine Labaki | Drama | 105’
Nadine Labaki gained international acclaim with her delightfully upbeat debut Caramel, set around a women’s hair salon in Beirut. Here she casts non-professional actors in a politically themed fable that sees a child resorting to the strong arm of the law. Just before the film screened at this year’s Marrakech Film Festival the news broke that the film would represent the Lebanon at the Academy Awards 2019.
This Cannes Jury Prize winner, and Golden Globe 2019 hopeful has the same stylish look as her previous two features but is a much more accomplished film that puts a watchable spin on dour social realism, although it does not quite reach the heights of perfection as the script resorts to disingenuous pandering in the slack final section. Subject-wise we are back to Daniel Blake territory although this is a much better crafted film than the one that bagged Ken Loach the Palme d’Or award several years ago. It also has to be said that CAPERNAUM does not bludgeon the life out of you with an agitprop hammer, despite a rather manipulative feel to proceedings. There are similarities too with Slumdog Millionaire in its upbeat fervour powered by cute and captivating performances from its newcomer children, and particularly from its lead Zain Al Rafeea.
Labaki structures her film round a trial, although this is not a courtroom procedural and most of the action is set in the chaotic streets or in cramped interiors where 12 year old Zain (Al Rafeea), who looks more like 8, is already serving a prison sentence for stabbing, is now suing his irresponsible parents for bringing him into the world. As one of several siblings, his parents never registered his birth. And all they seem to do is have children who they are unable to support and nourish, or even love. Despite cocky indignation and a bristling sense of entitlement to his rights, Zain is a likeable kid who lives with his parents Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef). Rather than school, he goes out to sell fruit juice in the market, where he also collects tramadol which the family grind into clothes-washing water which is then passed to Zain’s prison-serving elder brother. Later this tramadol water comes in as a usual way of earning money when Zain strikes out on his own. Although these circumstances are all startling to Western viewers, it has to be said that they are sadly run of the mill for millions of kids all over the world. But medication here in the Lebanon seems to be free at the point of collection, a fact which is difficult to believe given the current opiod crisis in the US and Europe.
After his younger sister Sahar is sold in marriage by his parents. Zain runs away and comes across Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian cleaner who is in Lebanon illegally. This strand introduces a migrant theme to the narrative which also feels timely. Zain offers to look after Rahil’s toddler while she is at work but she later disappears leaving the two to fend for themselves in what turns out to be quite an adventure.
This is a watchable drama with some endearing turns from the ensemble kiddy cast who conjure up an intoxicating chemistry considering their lack of experience. But the star of the piece is Rafeea as the cheekily adamant Zain, a tribute to kids everywhere who feel life has dealt them an unfair start, and who set out to put matters right. MT
MARRAKECH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL | IN COMPETITION 2018