Review: Capernaum

Review: Capernaum

It’s not very often that I will cry at a movie. It’s less often that I would do so at a cinema, however Capernuam proved the exception as I will admit I shed a tear.

There will be minor plot spoilers in this review. There are also some major plot spoilers, but I have kept them invisible until you press the “Click Here For Major Plot Spoilers” button, so don’t fear.

The English translation of capernaum is chaos and that is something you feel immediately in this film. Set on the streets of Lebanon, you are immediately grabbed by this wall of noise and overhead shots of the city. Whether its traffic, shouting or children crying, this film is constantly throwing things at you. Even on the roof, or at night, you can hear traffic below or see a child in poverty. You will not give you a moments respite.


Straight off the bat, we see lead character Zain have a medical test, establishing his age is around 12. He is then taken to a court room as he wants to sue his parents for giving birth to him. Throughout this court trial we watch the last few months of Zain’s life in flashbacks. It’s a similar style to Slumdog Millionaire, not as contrived, but it does serve a purpose. In the first court scene we learn that Zain is in jail for stabbing “a son of a bitch” (His words). This spoiler and his use of language show that happy moments are going to be few and far between.

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Zain with his sisters

It is immediately made clear that Zain is a smart kid. As soon as he realises his sister Sahar is on her period, he finds ways to hide this as he sees the danger it could put her in. He also steals sanitary products from the local shops. He knows that if his parents find out, she could be forced to marry Assaad, the dodgy landlord and shop owner.

Unfortunately, his parents do find out and give her away to Assaad for some chickens. A distraught Zain runs away from home and finds his way into a fairground where he meets Tigest, an Ethiopian immigrant who is facing deportation. She takes him home and entrusts him to look after her son Yonas while she goes to get some new paperwork to stay in the country. From there, we see Zain try to survive in this difficult world.

Fear and Dread

The courtroom set up is certainly interesting. While not necessary, it certainly sets a scene of dread as we get plot reveals drip fed to us. These almost immediately extinguish any hope we have for Zain. That is a short-coming of this film. You watch to see why things happened, not in hope that things will be better. The music does little to help either. The minor violins add to the atmosphere. They don’t come in until Zain has ran away from home. They lay it on thick, but that’s what makes this film powerful.

Acting Baby Steps

When you go to a film with a child ina central role, you always start with a degree of cynicism. But Zain is brilliantly acted by Zain Al Rafeea. He puts in a strong emotional performance that you wouldn’t expect from a child. Similarly to The Florida Project, the filming is done at a child’s level with lots of upward looking shots to show him at the same level as his elders. The vocabulary choices and delivery show an angry boy well beyond his years. He acts tough, standing up for himself but showing fear and remorse at other times. The other actors were also brilliant from Tigest (Yordanos Shiferaw) to his sister Sahar (Haita Izzam)

But one of the best supporting actors was Boluwatife Treasure Bankole as Yonas, Tigest’s son. This kid is one year old. Heck, she’s also a girl. She can’t even speak, yet somehow director Labaki turned her into a better actor than me. The kid cries and shows hope of innocence at the right time and seems to have a great relationship with Zain. When a one-year-old can out-act you, accept your dream is dead. It’s not going to happen.

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Zain and Yonas

This film does lay it on thick. The lack of any hope or creativity means that you aren’t in for a sweet ride. Unlike Roma, there isn’t any sort of build up, which in some ways makes it feel not as raw, although this is offset by the central character being a child. The film maybe could’ve done with another ten minutes at the end as it feels like it’s over before we see any resolution, yet the choice of end is powerful in its own way (See spoiler section below).

Click Here For Major Plot Spoilers and Discussion Oh my word, where do I begin. Zain being instantly aware that Assaad was going to take Sahar was immediately threatening. When he did take her away and you felt the panic, this scene possibly had too many cut aways and too much happening. I imagine it would’ve been simpler to understand in English, but that is part of the limit. The anger when Zain was running away felt truly real. You hated the parents, you hated Assaad, that son of a bitch.

Tigest offered Zain so much hope and felt like the mother he never had. When she left and didn’t come back, you felt his confusion. However, this was mitigated by the fact you’d seen her in court already. This was probably the one time the court scene took away from the drama.

The film really gets going when Zain acts as a father to baby Yonas. He acts like an adult in the situation and is so calm. It doesn’t feel like most child actors being kids. Soon after, he meets Aspro, a gangster who wants to take baby Yonas. Tigest’s one instruction was to not leave Yonas with him.

As the film progresses, Zain has to sell some drugs and goes very quickly from being an adult, to being seen as a child. This stark limitation does foreshadow the start of his fall back to childishness. Zain meets a Syrian refugee girl called Maysoun who talks about how Aspro is going to get her to Sweden. This intrigues Zain who confronts Aspro about going.

Now, for when I cried…

Aspro agrees, but only for Yonas and Zain’s ID papers. Feeling that he didn’t have a choice, Zain gives Yonas away. The unawareness in Yonas’ eyes truly hurts Zain and hurts the audience to. The bitter part is that he is doing exactly what his mother did earlier, feeling that he has no choice. It gets sadder.

When getting his papers from home, Zain is told he doesn’t have any. His father discusses the papers he has, including hospital papers. Zain asks who is in hospital? Upon not getting an answer, he tugs peoples shirt arms and asks quietly. In his fear, you don’t see a tough person, you see a vulnerable distraught child. That is the moment that breaks you. Especially, as you already know the answer. This scene was put together brilliantly. Everything goes silent, the chaotic children watch Zain run with the knife as he goes to find Assaad.

This breaks his spirit. Sahar is dead. In jail he has nothing. This is made worse as a detained Tigest sees him without her son and screams helplessly. She has been trying to keep him as well as she could. Zain did all he could, but here was where we ended up.

You never felt as a child, Zain did anything wrong. However, he gave a baby to a gangster and stabbed a man, the same man responsible for his sisters death. His wishing he wasn’t born feels justified.

In the last scene, Zain is told to smile for a photo. In this, you see his pain as it doesn’t feel natural. You try to remember when he did smile in the movie. He didn’t grow up as a child should and you feel little hope for him in the future. The silence as the picture is still just leaves you to remorse, you didn’t see the smile more.


This isn’t a happy film, but it’s strikingly powerful. It tells a story of poverty which we don’t hear about enough in the west. The lead performer is brilliant and you will be emotionally invested within the first twenty minutes.

Do try to go to this film, but make sure you bring some tissues with you.

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