The award-winning Lebanese film about human rights, specifically immigrant issues and child abuse, is hard to watch and just as difficult to review. We begin by seeing a pre-pubescent boy being orally examined while standing in his underwear. The medical examiner tells the note-taker that the boy has lost all his baby teeth and that he could be twelve. Zain, as we learn his name, looks more like nine or ten. It is Zain’s harrowing life that propels us through squalor and all the horrendous ways that the underclass tries to earn shelter and food at the expense of ethics and personal safety.
Street smarts are shown through watching Zain. He instructs his 11 year-old sister, Sahar, on menstrual hygiene, or more to the point, how to keep her burgeoning womanhood hidden from their parents, who will arrange a marriage immediately to the highest bidder. We see Zain fake family illnesses for prescription drugs, while the entire family washes clothing in drug- laced-water for eventual sale. “Juice-washed clothing” is a growing concern, as is “beet juice better than booze” and sundry spiked shots. Forged work permits, sold babies, sex for ramen noodles and licorice, all are seen.
An Ethiopian mother takes pity on Zain, but then uses him to babysit her son while she washes windows, or whatever she can do as she saves to buy a work permit. As an illegal, human rights are at a minimum.
In one of the most haunting scenes, Zain is left to tie the one-year-olds’s leg around a street pole to keep him from traffic and from following him. When the mother, Rahil, is placed in custody along with hundreds of other undocumented workers, Zain sadly agrees to let a crudely enterprising shopkeeper purchase Rahil’s baby. The look of utter despair on Zain’s face will ravage even the most jaded viewer. We are reminded what the young actor, Al Rafeea, has said to his charge: “ your mother is even worse than mine.” though we don’t think so. Rahil is in many ways an exemplar of motherhood.
The film’s title “Capernaum” means both chaos and miracles. A Biblical city where Jesus berated unbelievers, Capernaum, near the Sea of Galilee, was also the place of miracles. Director Nadine Labaki keeps this in mind as we see small kindnesses and self-serving debaucheries.
Children dying having children; children living in the streets scouring for basics ; and, children suing their parents for bringing them into a hopeless world all are touched. As one pre-teen Syrian girl says, “ I dream of where kids only die from natural causes.”
Over one and a half million Syrian refugees are in Lebanon, and support services are available. In one scene, Zain’s street friend tells him about a food dispensary. Resourcefulness is high-lighted when Zain tries to explain how he and his black charge are Syrian. He tells the in-take desk clerk that his mom drank a lot of coffee; then sweetly, he tells the woman in charge of the dispensary that milk and diapers are his first concern. Zain’s call to a television show and his statement that he was expecting to be a good man, respected and loved stabs our hearts. When the judge asks what he wants, Zain states simply: “ I want them ( my parents) to stop having children.”
The film moves back and forth between the subsequent assault trial to the street life that contributed to it. The hospital refused to care for Zain’s sister , the pregnant Sahar. Zain stabbed her husband in revenge. Selim, Zain and Sahar’s father, opines that with no papers we are treated like insects to be swatted away. When he states in his whiskey breath that, “If I had a chance, I would be a better man than all of you.” we wonder rather than judge.
The parents see their children as a way to keep them alive. When Zain rebels, their harsh words are the saddest in the film. Though Zain’s mother visits him in custody before his transfer, we are not any more comforted than when we see missionaries sing to cheer up the caged workers.
“Capernaum” is powerful and covers many issues. The music is as haunting as the screenplay. At a time when the United States is considering walls, this is the film to see about giving people chances. When the question is “ Do you need someone to hold your fishing pole for you?”, we think of the black market world and say “yes”.