Capernaum, nominated for a 2019 Best Foreign Language Oscar, is a surprisingly magical film – considering it revolves around abandoned children.
What does Capernaum mean?
Capernaum means “chaos.” It’s the story of Zain, a twelve-year-old boy. His poor parents have simply had too many kids to be able to support them all.
So, after they sell his beloved eleven-year-old sister into marriage Zain leaves the misery of his family life behind. He trades it for the dirty streets of Lebanon, where he ends up sheltering with an Ethiopian refugee woman named Rahil.
To pay her back for taking him in, Zain watches Rahil’s infant, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). Zain is only supposed to do this while she’s is at work. However, when she is detained by the authorities, Zain and Yonas are suddenly on their own.
The Bleakness and Beauty of Capernaum
The bleakness of the situation is only matched by the unsettling beauty of this young child struggling to take care of a baby. Zain, and especially Yonas, are extremely cute, but in an essential way, not a precious one.
Some of the film’s most striking scenes are just the two of them interacting, and (as you might imagine) it’s not conversation heavy. Filmmaker Nadine Labaki chose non-actors to play characters closely paralleling their own lives, and encouraged them to come up with their own words and gestures, even altering her script to follow what they came up with.
This naturalism comes through completely and to great effect. As Zain’s struggle gets harder, he is driven to commit a crime. Later, from jail, he sues his parents for giving birth to him. Though the film actually begins in the courtroom (and returns), it never gets lost in this part of the plot. Instead, it wisely uses it to make a point.
By then the audience is utterly invested in Zain, it is impossible not to be, such is the potency and truth of his performance, and the natural appeal of the actor.
THE WORD: An absolutely emotional knock-out, and – surpisingly – much more hopeful than it sounds.
THE WHERE: In Theaters from Sony Pictures Classics
Watch the official trailer for Capernaum here:
Take a look at more award-worthy films vying for a little gold man at the 2019 Academy Awards.
Last modified: February 8, 2019