Review: Sun never shines in 'Capernaum'

Lebanese drama, up for this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar, is an exercise in depression

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Zain Al Rafeea in "Capernaum."

In "Capernaum," misery is piled on top of misery. 

This Lebanese drama — the title translates to "chaos" — is about a child named Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) whose existence is so desolate he sues his parents for giving birth to him. Compared to Zain, the kids in "The Florida Project" live in Disney World.

Zain doesn't know how old he is — he doesn't have the papers to prove his birth, but a medical examiner determines him to be 12 years old — and he spends much of the film on the streets of Beirut, hustling to stay alive in ceaselessly horrid conditions.

When his 11-year-old sister Sahar (Haita 'Cedra' Izzam) is peddled off to a local sleaze who plans to marry her, Zain goes off on his own. He winds up with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who entrusts him to take care of her baby Yonas (Treasure Bankhole), and Zain tries to earn the money to buy them both a better life which, in this case, is the dream of a boat ride to Sweden.  

Co-writer and director Nadine Labaki shoots "Capernaum" with a fluent, documentary-like realism. But she trips up narratively by cutting the film around courtroom scenes which continuously interrupt the flow and timeline of the story. We learn early on that Zain is brought before the court because he, in his own words, "stabbed a son of a bitch." Labaki uses this information and the court proceedings as a carrot to dangle in front of the audience, an unneeded device that undercuts the drama at hand. 

In her favor, she gets a mesmerizing performance from her lead, who is so natural that you forget you're watching a scripted film. But in terms of story, a little less capernaum would have gone a long way.




Rated R: for language and some drug material

Running time: 123 minutes