The poverty drama CAPERNAUM – CITY OF HOPE is one of the favorites for this year’s foreign Oscar. And even if thematically everything points to another poverty porn, the directorial work by the Lebanese Nadine Labaki is anything but that. We’ll reveal more about this in our review.
The Plot Summary
Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is just twelve years old. At least he is estimated to be that age. The boy has no papers and the family no longer knows exactly when he was born. Now he is in court and suing his parents for giving birth to him even though they cannot care for him. He tells the judge his moving story: what happened after he ran away from home and found shelter with a young mother from Ethiopia and how he ended up having to fight his way through the slums of Beirut with her baby, penniless and alone.
Movie explanation of the ending
Although the subtitle “City of Hope” might suggest it, the Lebanese drama “Capernaum” is not set in a city with that name. Rather, the name is to be understood symbolically, because in Hebrew the word figuratively means chaos. The little boy Zain was born into such chaos twelve years ago. Into the poverty of the Lebanese slums, where he lives with his family on a few square meters, steals during the day and worries about his younger siblings at night. Zain Al Rafeea also plays himself here, because “Capernaum” is largely inspired by real fates that the director Nadine Labaki (“Who knows where?”), who describes her production style as “committed to the truth”, encountered during her research for her film project. “Capernaum”, which was filmed on original locations and features only amateur actors, feels exactly the same, although it uses a premise as a dramaturgical superstructure with which it seems to be pandering to a Western audience. A boy who sues his parents because of his own birth – that can of course be sold much better than the umpteenth fate of a destitute family living in third world conditions. But ultimately said court case is only an insignificant narrative bracket. All it’s about is a boy’s story. And “Capernaum” sees the personalities in the people at the center here and not just victims of their circumstances.
In the slums of Beirut you have to stick together to survive.
Where does the authentic drama end and where does the calculated “poverty porn” begin? This question is so difficult to answer because in most cases the line between them is blurred. But after the Japanese drama “Shoplifters” recently showed how to do it right, Nadine Labaki manages to pull off a similar feat. She never crosses the line into crude sentimentality because she and her almost documentary style have no need to provoke emotions with the help of sad children’s eyes or similar motifs. Instead, her work questions an entire system. And in order to actually shake things up, you have to be able to take “Capernaum” seriously. From the beginning, Labaki illuminates both sides that led to the circumstances in which Zain and his family (representing an entire social class) have to live in poor Lebanon. The magic word here is ambivalence. For example, there is the main character Zain, a completely normal adolescent. His fate is tragic. There will never be education and prosperity for him. He takes touching care of his siblings and often seems much more reflective than the adults around him. But there is also the other image of the boy. A boy who occasionally tends to be violent, who steals and gets into trouble with those around him. Zain doesn’t beg for the audience’s favor and isn’t a model protagonist. Ultimately, in “Capernaum” you should be interested in the big picture and not just in individual, particularly dramatic aspects.
While Zain cannot be characterized exclusively as the pitiful boy, Zain’s environment cannot be pushed into an antagonist role either. No matter how irresponsible his parents seem, no matter how vile the neighbors who abduct Zain’s sister against her will, they may seem: in “Capernaum” Nadine Labaki skilfully maneuvers herself around the question of “good” and “evil” and never asks the question about it. who is the victim and perpetrator under these circumstances. She is much more interested in the answer to “Why?” And so she repeatedly reveals the inner life of each individual character, which mostly consists of self-blame, a feeling of being left behind and helplessness. The filmmaker is far from offering an apology. But it reveals how thoughts, rituals and systems have become entrenched in the world of the poorest people that will probably never be broken. This refers to a misunderstood feeling of “being a man” as well as the dependence of the poor on the rich or arbitrary immigration and emigration laws. Nadine Labaki doesn’t just touch on all of these topics. She thinks more ambitiously and brings them all together in a comprehensible, credible and coherent way, until you gradually start to understand the big picture, before the next missing puzzle piece pulls the rug out from under your feet with full force.
Zain and his siblings stay afloat by stealing food.
In order to capture the goings-on in the Lebanese slums in a particularly subjective way, she not only largely avoids distorting music, but also goes with her cameraman Christopher Aoun (“Ismaii”), similar to his colleague Anthony Dod Mantle in Angelina Jolie’s “The Long Way of Hope”, always on an equal footing with Zain. Especially in particularly chaotic moments, “Capernaum” deliberately lacks an overview until the viewer can understand exactly how the main character must be feeling. As a result, the film takes on downright painful traits, especially in the second half, when the focus of the story gradually shifts to Zain’s relationship with a single mother with whom he looks after her baby. Between subtle bouts of humor (Zain’s parenting methods are, let’s say, unconventional) that emphasize the deep humanity of such scenes, all the promising scenes at some point lead to the greatest possible catastrophe – that’s not a spoiler, after all, we know from the start that Zain will ultimately end up behind bars. Nadine Labaki keeps jumping back to this point. It helps to put events into perspective in a completely sober way at times, even if it is questionable whether such a trial would ever take place. But just to take a breather between all the misery, these moments are almost good. Even if it’s only when the credits roll that you realize what you’ve just seen.
Conclusion: No sentimentality but harsh reality – “Capernaum – City of Hope” is a highly emotional drama about poverty, for which the director completely avoids any misunderstood sentimentality. Instead, she questions an entire system, foregoing clear classifications into good, bad, victim and perpetrator. And that’s precisely why the film is so heartfelt.
“Capernaum – City of Hope” can be seen in selected USA cinemas from January 17th.