Cannes Review: Capernaum details the plight of ‘paperless’ youth

Nadine Labaki discovers a spirit of social justice in her newest film


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Winner of the jury prize at Cannes, Nadine Labaki’s passion project, “Capernaum,” is the biggest tearjerker at this year’s festival.

“Capernaum” follows Zain, an impoverished boy living in inner-city Beirut, as he runs away from home, seeking a better life and finding a situation worse than that which he left.

Zain’s birth was left unregistered by his parents in order to save a little money—birth registration can cost up to 150 USD in Lebanon—and as a result, Zain is treated like a second-class citizen, lacking the basic rights offered to those with full Lebanese passports.

Zain’s story is emblematic of a trend in Beirut and big cities all over the world. Labaki’s ambition in making the film was to expose the horrors of a paperless childhood, bringing attention to an issue which is underrepresented in contemporary cinema.

Children being denied their basic rights is a concept that is hard to swallow, but Labaki forces the pill down your throat, handling the task with tact and compassion.

The film by itself is beautiful, but its backstory is even more touching. Go into the first viewing of “Capernaum” knowing the real lives of the actors on screen, and your soul will still be healing days later.

Labaki cast nonactors to embody the characters in her script. All of the principle cast come from situations nearly identical to that which they portray in the film.

The decision results in several excellent performances. Zain al-Rafeea, the 13-year-old boy who plays Zain in the movie, gives a performance equivalent in stature to that of Jacob Tremblay in Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” except al-Rafeea will likely be forced to return to the streets of Beirut whereas Tremblay is still starring in Hollywood films.

Labaki’s one misstep with the film is the structure which frames the narrative. By setting portions at the beginning and end of the film in a highly unrealistic court case, Zain sues his parents for having given birth to him, Labaki undermines the validity of the film’s message.

That being said, Nadine Labaki directs with intelligence and genuine empathy, and her love for both her characters and the actors that portray them shines through in the film. I would not be surprised if the film were nominated for an Oscar, and I would not at all be surprised if it won.

Sony Pictures Classic will release “Capernaum” in the United States later this year.

MOVE gives “Capernaum” 4.5 out of 5 stars.

For more MOVE coverage of Cannes Film Festival, click here:

Edited by Siena DeBolt |

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