‘Capernaum’: A Scream of Rage That Needs to Ring Loud in Our Ears
While searching for the origin of the word ‘Capernaum’, I came across this - it was a fishing village located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is said that chaos reigned there, and as per the Gospels, Jesus performed miracles in the land. Nadine Labaki’s third film, Capernaum (released in India on 21 June), couldn’t have had a more befitting title. The film opens with an aerial shot of Beirut, a city torn apart by the politics of war. The deafening background score adds to the prevailing tension.
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The camera swiftly moves to show a skimpily clad boy and closes in on a woman’s face. While the former is being examined by a doctor to determine his age, the latter stands with a group of women held by the cops, tears streaming down her face. Both are facing trial. Despite being separated by varied tongues - neglect and suffering unite the duo.
The boy, Zain, is produced before the judge for stabbing someone. But the kid, too, wants justice by suing his parents for giving birth to him. Shocked? Don’t be. There’s a story behind the proclamation that will make you question humanity. We are introduced to Zain and his family through flashbacks. A group of children runs down the narrow lanes of Beirut. They are engrossed in a game, not with cars or paper boats or soft toys, but cardboard guns. They pretend to kill each other, unaware of the fact that circumstances are actually slaughtering them.
Zain is angry about his unhappy, abusive childhood. His parents do not have legal papers, hence they have resigned to a cruel fate. Zain is also forced to partake in this indignity – he helps his parents make money by smuggling opioid drugs into prison (his brother is a convict there). Every time the child is made to do odd jobs to eke a living, a school van appears in his line of sight, reinforcing the injustice of a robbed childhood.
As the mundane life never ceases to stop, Zain’s sister hits puberty. The stains on her shorts are a red flag for the brother, because he is terrified that if his mom finds out, she would get Sahar married off to their landlord’s son. From stealing sanitary napkins to plotting their escape, Zain tries to protect his sister but in vain. In one brilliantly executed scene, we are made to feel the agony of their separation.
Zain finally flees in a moment of despair and rage, only to encounter another mother who is fighting to keep her child safe. For Rahil (Yordanas Shiferaw), an immigrant from Ethiopia, and her son Yonas, each day brings with it a sense of fear and uncertainty. She wears different identities just so that she can extend her stay in Lebanon. Zain and Rahil come together in their misery, till she disappears one day. Zain is left all alone with Yonas.
With the infant in his arms, the 12-year-old takes to the streets to search for Rahil. Hope turns into despair, but there is a desperation to look after a baby that cries for his mother. From devising ‘innovative’ ways to feed a wailing infant to cooking up a story about being a Syrian refugee so that he can get some milk and diapers from a relief centre, Zain grows up. When the money dries, he tries to sell the crumbled pots and pans from the house.
Yonas sitting in a pressure cooker on a makeshift pushchair made from a skateboard as Zain drags the cutlery is symbolic that the bottled-up rage is about to burst. Zain’s urge to survive resembles Bruno’s attempt to look out for himself and his father in The Bicycle Thieves.
A series of events leads to Yonas getting separated from Zain. To add to his misery, he lands up in jail after running a dagger through a person.
We see the film through Zain’s eyes. The boy, a Syrian refugee himself, delivers the most compelling performance. It was when the end credits rolled and I found out that his real name is also Zain Al Rafeea, it struck me that there is no pretence here. The emotions are real, so is the pain. Close-up shots of the boy’s hollow eyes reminded me of the Jewish child from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. In one scene where Zain falls asleep on the streets clutching a half-eaten packet of ramen, the gaze is directed towards helicopters hovering over. That is the effect war has on the young. Not only Zain, there’s a young Syrian refugee who sells knickknacks and who dreams of running away to Sweden because children there “die of natural causes”.
Yordanas Shiferaw is brilliant as Rahil. She is the voice of all the refugees who are exploited, left to die on the streets, and who live in constant fear of being deported.
The final monologue in the film that Zain delivers while talking from the jail to a TV channel fills our heart with sadness. Teary-eyed, I listened when he said. “I want all the adults to listen. I wanted to be a good human being”. Is this what we fight wars and brandish guns for? Capernaum (that won the top awards at Cannes last year) is the angry screams of children that need to ring loud and clear in our ears.