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my review: capernaum

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‘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.

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