CAPERNAUM/ CHAOS. Lebanon, 2018. Starring Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Sheferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole.
Directed by Nadine Labaki. 120 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language).
This is a very serious film about contemporary Lebanon, about Lebanon at any time – and about any society where children are put at risk and brutalised.
The alternate title to Capernaum is “Chaos”. The film is by a talented Lebanese director, Nadine Labaki, her third feature film – with her previous two films Caramel, Where Do We Go Now, concentrating on women characters, their lives, and some peacemaking between Christians and Muslims in a village.
This time her focus is on a young boy, age 12, Zain, played with some complexity by Zain Al Rafeea, up till now his only screen appearance. He is completely convincing.
Zain is from a very large family, squatting as a favour in an uncomfortable apartment in Beirut, packed together during the night, the mother angry, the father even angrier, treating the children brutally. Zain does have a job in a shop (and not above some shoplifting). The owner has his eyes on Zain’s younger sister, proposing an arranged marriage. And here we see Zain sensitive to his sister, noticing that she has had her first period and washing her clothes, advising her to be silent, really upset when she is made up for the meeting with the proposed husband.
The screenplay moves back and forth in time, highlighting Zain in prison for young offenders, in court, charged with a physical attack on the husband, unrepentant and acknowledging he had attacked the ’sonafabitch’. The judge listens to his case. There are scenes with the prosecution and the defence.
In the major flashback, Zain runs away from home, and encounters a sad clown on a bus and decides to stay in the town where he gets off, where he works at a large fair.
The opening of the film, there has been a scene where a number of women are gathered and accused of not having documents to stay in Lebanon. There is a focus on one from Ethiopia, Rahil, pregnant. The fair is where Zain and Rahil come together, she sheltering him in her home, relying on him to look after her young baby as she goes to work. There are very tender and moving sequences with a Zain and the baby.
The film moves towards tragic consequences, Rahil arrested and unable to contact Zain, imprisoned and concerned about her child. Zain meanwhile entrusts the baby, unwittingly, to a people smuggler who has promised him and a young Syrian refugee passage to Sweden or Turkey. When Zain returns home to get his papers, he discovers the fate of his young sister which leads to his brutal attack on the husband.
The film is not without hope, the young prisoners listening to a television program where an advocate for children’s rights is suggesting that some children could sue their parents – and, we realise, that this is where we came in at the beginning of the film, Zain declaring that he wants to sue his parents. His parents appear at the trial, an indictment of their brutal behaviour, but also harsh criticism of the conditions which lead to this kind of abusive behaviour.
So, the film is quite an emotional experience as well is a challenge to values and concern about the welfare of children.
Released February 7th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.