Review: CAPERNAUM Is An Important, Touching Film

capernaum pots
Left to right: Zain Al Rafeea as Zain, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole as Yonas. Photo by Christopher Aoun, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Capernaum is a new Lebanese film directed by and co-starring Nadine Labaki. The story is about a twelve-year-old boy who sues his parents for being born while serving a prison sentence for a violent crime. It is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

A big part of what makes this movie so impactful is its brilliant character development. The protagonist, Zain, is extremely sympathetic. Films about people in poverty are frequently among the most touching and impactful, but that effect is compounded by the fact that Zain is so young. It is very sad to think about the fact that children like him have to suffer like this in real life.

The movie goes even further than this basic sympathy, though, making Zain into one of the most likable protagonists of any film from 2018. Over the course of the movie, you will feel like you are becoming closer and closer to him. He is written in a way that is rounded and feels very real. The character’s dialogue and action give him the playful and childlike qualities you would expect but without the innocence.

capernaum close-up
Left to right: Zain Al Rafeea as Zain. Photo by Christopher Aoun, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The story’s concept also makes it stand out and feel more compelling. The idea of a child suing his parents because he was born into poverty is an intriguing (and thoroughly heartbreaking) thought. However, it does a great job of expressing the message at the film’s core. The filmmakers intend to show that this is a legitimate issue in the world, and it is unlikely that anyone will see the movie and think otherwise.

Some of the images in the film help reinforce the messages proposed by the story. There are some moments that are hard to watch, not because of actual brutality, but because of how brutally honest they are. It’s sad to see two kids eating nothing more than ice cubes with sugar on them or one kid pulling another in a pot on top of a skateboard. These harrowing moments, no matter how difficult, are important to see.

capernaum zain
Left to right: Zain Al Rafeea as Zain. Photo by Christopher Aoun, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The movie has a purposefully rough style, used to mirror the rough and gritty subject matter, and it is extremely effective. The cinematography is very personal, with a lot of close-ups that are used to capture the emotion of the scenes. Even though it may not be complex in technical terms, the simplistic style of filmmaking is intricate in the way it is used to affect the audience.

The actors all do a great job in their roles too. First-time child actor Zain Al Rafeea is excellent as the protagonist. He brings a lot of emotion to the role, and his lack of experience helps to make the character feel more naturalistic. He is complemented by a strong supporting cast, out of which the biggest standout was likely Fadi Yousef, who plays the protagonist’s father.

Overall, Capernaum is one of the most emotional films of the year. It has a unique and touching story with great characters and performances. This is one you won’t want to miss.

Capernaum is now playing in select theaters and expands to more markets on February 8.

By Sean Boelman

Sean is a film student, aspiring filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include dramatic comedies, romantic comedies, heist films, and art horror.

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