‘capernaum’ is a hectic, brutal, relentless journey into the slums of beirut and the lives of its inhabitants. it reminded me of ‘dirty pretty things,’ a film about the underground world of illegal immigration, set in london, in which chiwetel ejiofor’s performance blew me away. ‘capernaum’ too has its share of stunning performances, especially by children including the film’s remarkable protagonist zain al rafeea, a syrian refugee, and boluwatife treasure bankole who delivers the most unbelievable performance by a toddler in film, ever. shot with documentary style realism, the film addresses poverty and violence head-on, thru the lens of those who are the most vulnerable.
however, the final message of the film is unsettling. many times, in films that expose the pathos of poverty, there’s a speech at the end, something to leave the viewers with, a resolution of the tragedy they just witnessed. we saw ken loach’s ‘i, daniel blake’ recently and he follows the same convention. but whereas loach’s films humanize the poor and are strongly critical of the systems that produce and sustain poverty, nadine labaki’s ‘capernaum’ ends with a patronizing scolding, a decree to the poor not to produce so many children.
although 12-year-old zain is a compelling character, his parents are shown as dickensian villains, selfish, heartless and irresponsibly fertile. rather than question the system that produces such people, labaki is satisfied with this skin-deep portrayal.
in interviews labaki has said that the film is universal and that it ends with a challenge to audiences to confront their complicity. yet the connections to imperial wars (the mass dislocation and humanitarian crises they produce) and their impact on neighboring countries in the middle east, already struggling with their economies, are missing from the film. that context would have been a brave, and much needed, addition.
Interesting…. I will have to marinate on this as I was very impressed by the director’s dedication to the vulnerabilities of the characters without adding gratuitous drama, adrenaline, or even heroism, particularly (the latter being a tendency among overly enthusiastic storytellers who can’t seem to restrain themselves from heavy-hand syndrome). I absolutely thought of “Dirty Pretty Things” as well. And my friend and I laughed over the thought that the infant in this film definitely deserved an Oscar nod for Supporting role!
Yet there is constant drama, as zain moves from one hellish situation to the next. it’s become a kind of genre. apart from dirty pretty things, i also thought of slum dog millionaire and films shot in favelas or the french banlieues. some of these are more stylized than capernaum, but always there’s this fast paced, compressed, shockingly violent almost frenzied visual drive-thru/overview of what is perceived as the very hectic and brutal lives of marginalized people. i wish these films would take time to tell us more complete, well-rounded, deeper stories. just witnessing the grittiness is not enough. these stories need to be anchored in the politics and socio-economic realities that make them possible. otherwise it’s a kind of consumption.
there is straightforward moralizing in the film – court scenes are always used as a platform. but i wish that rather than lectures on how hard poverty is (the mother and father both make speeches) this message was embodied in the lives we are shown, which could have been more multidimensional. decontextualization is a political act.
and of course, the central lecture on good parenting and birth control is so patronizing, so problematic. i cannot believe that more people didn’t react to it.