Review: ‘Capernaum’ Launches Nadine Labaki Into the Limelight

There are few directors who can competently direct children. Frankly, it can be a tiring and thankless job. If the child actor cannot give you what you need, it can actually sink a film. Yet few children have the ability to process and emote the way that mature adults can later in life. This puts the burden on a director to craft a performance and inspire their cast to greatness. Nadine Labaki might deliver the best direction of children ever in her recent film Capernaum. The foreign language submission to the Oscars from Lebanon stands out because of these performances that simply take your breath away. Thanks to Labaki and her brilliant script, Capernaum rises to be one of the year’s very best features.

The story of Capernaum focuses on a young boy named Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), who has decided to sue his parents for bringing him into the world. Told through a series of flashbacks, Zain and his sister Sahar struggle to survive against his mother and father. Their family is poor, and Sahar will likely be sold off to help the family survive. After Sahar is taken from their home, Zain runs away and finds an immigrant struggling to survive. Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) has given birth to a child, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), illegally in the country. She must hide this child from the government out of fear that she and her child are sent away. Zain and Yonas must survive after Rahil disappears, forging a brotherly bond to fight for survival.

Capernaum features many of the very best performances in any film this year. This begins with Al Rafeea, who instantly lights up the screen. There will undoubtedly be comparisons to Slumdog Millionaire or Lionbut Labaki crafts Al Rafeea’s performance to be much more dynamic. He swears, and emotes, and shows real anger. He’s not simply on camera to be a cute child, but instead a hardened and angry one. His emotion can be read over every inch of his face, which will undoubtedly stir up the waterworks in more than one scene. With Labaki’s help, Al Rafeea gives the best performance by an actor under the age of 14 this century. Considering the litany of strong films that feature those kinds of performers, that’s quite the compliment.

Simultaneously, Labaki somehow gets an actual performance from 2-year-old Bankole. How does Labaki do it? I have no idea. Yet there are real choices made and emotion delivered. What Labaki captures on the screen can be heart wrenching and troubling. Yet there are real moments of joy and happiness between Al Rafeea and Bankole. There’s an actual chemistry there. Rather than just watching children play, there are real stakes from the relationship we observe.

Just as important is Shiferaw, whose performance will eat away at you. She acts as the adult surrogate for the film, one who realizes the stakes at play. You see her work through decisions that would break other characters and come out the other side with resilience. Desperation feels ever-present when she is one screen, but her determination to save her child makes her a warrior. Shiferaw knows how to hold up composure and let go in other moments, resulting in an emotional rollercoaster that will leave you breathless.

All of this brilliance stems from the brilliant script from Labaki. One part The Florida Project and one part struggle for survival, Labaki’s work shines. The screenplay is tight and effective. She appropriately assigns blame where it is due but also gives audiences moments that will make you question the gray areas of poverty. The rendering of these emotional moments will make you cry and sob, but Labaki does not want to leave the audience in a moment of darkness. Instead, she allows good things to happen to these characters, bringing light into a poverty-stricken world that often has none.

Capernaum does not just want to make you feel bad about poor children, but it wants you to know that their lives can be meaningful too. That’s what makes Capernaum stand out as one of the most authentic and sob-inducing films of the year. With brilliant performances and even more brilliant direction, Capernaum should become a classic for fans of foreign fans and tear jerkers for years to come.

GRADE: (★★★½)

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