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Capernaum review: Living a Zero-Sum End Game 

posted on: May 1, 2024

Capernaum Trailer

By: María Teresa Fidalgo-Azize| Arab America Contributing Writer 

Sara Aridi: Some critics may see the film as “poverty porn” 

Nadine Labaki: All I can tell them is: “Get real. Get out of your cage where you’re writing your critique and go out into the world and see what’s happening around you.” What you see in the film is nothing compared to reality. We should wake up to how many children are suffering in the world. It’s unbearable suffering; I didn’t put rape scenes in the film, I didn’t put real abuse in the film—because I couldn’t. 

Capernaum’ Is Not Just a Film, but a Rallying Cry

In a country whose population amounts to 5.49 million citizens, Lebanon’s poverty rate rages at 80% and 36% living below the poverty line. Cluttered with decades of civil war trauma, terrorist extremism, inflation, the migration crisis, food insecurity, and declining economic growth rate, the lives of the neglected underclass mirror that of an infernal sewerage— a vermin-eaten reality precursor to unending chaos. The 2018 film Capernaum, winner of the Cannes Jury Prize and Academy Award nominee, tells the story of Zain, played by Syrian refugee non-actor Zain Al Rafeea, an unlikely foul-mouthed child hero and his life as a member of the paperless pariah class in the slums of Beirut.

Director Nadine Labaki confrontationally punctures the audience with graphic scenes of child marriage, gender-based violence, child abuse, and the dehumanization of refugees. Yet questions she also righteous judgment serves as a distraction from cyclical misery perpetuating the criminalization of poverty. The most comfortable response is to love someone or uncritically hate them blindly — a sad life story does not erase or justify abuse. However, it explains how those we view as monsters also carry carved scars. 

Capernaum’s Beirut walks through hell’s hallway of mirrors. Nonetheless, in whatever way possible, more than the flames of hell, Labaki captures the mundaneness of its perverted warmth. Zain runs away after his 11-year-old sister is sold into child marriage. His streetwise intuition knew this would happen: even in a world without structure or guidance, recognizable patterns exist graveled as socially impaired tradition[1].  

Arrestingly, this film speaks beyond the slums and how they formalize callous childhoods. Capernaum denies audiences a passive viewership or hovers around a well-furnished yet useless pity. Like the interview title above, Capernaum is a rallying cry to lend attention and engage in proactive action for the lives of those who, like Zain, howl and beg for legitimacy.

Capernaum: The Cannibal Politics of Child Poverty

Zain: I want grownups to hear what I have to say. I’m sick of those who can’t take care of their kids. What will I take from all this? All the insults, all the beatings, the kicking? The chain, the hose, or the belt? The nicest words I hear is, “Fuck off, you son of a bitch!”, “Piss off, you fucker!” Life is dog shit. Filthier than the shoes on my feet. I’m living in hell. Getting roasted like the chicken I’m dying to eat. Life is a bitch. I was expecting to be a good man, respected and loved. But God doesn’t want that. He wants us to be floor mats, to be stepped on.

Nadine Labaki, Capernaum 

Zain was convicted to five years in prison after stabbing the husband of his underage sister, who died as a result of her pregnancy. After his mother visits him and shares the news that she is pregnant, Zain calls a local television program that touches on the subject of child abuse, stating that he wants to sue his parents for the crime of his being born. Trapped in a life drenched in misery, Zain has taken care of an infant, Yonas, after his undocumented Ethiopian mother was taken into custody, has been denied formal education and dignified living conditions, and has witnessed the horrors of being invisible to the law and civil society. Zain was never granted a childhood. Happiness for children like Zain is a foreign concept— one aloof from the tortuous survival road. As Zain expresses in the text above, being born is not a miracle or a gift from God when your home is below nothing. The ferocity in his anger addresses both his family and the state, complicit to structural poverty and the consequences of its decay. 

I, like so many, couldn’t help but cry in this scene, tears not born from rage as much as despair. Because Capernaum’s structure is non-linear, we hear the rebuttal of Zain’s parents before hearing his monologue. Their defense admits self-hatred yet its most moving moment is when Soud, Zain’s mother, conveys how a system that has failed them can morally demonize those who grow up as Eddie ‘Scrap Iron’ Dupris in Million Dollar Baby describes as between nowhere and a goodbye. In Western culture’s obsession with self-victimization out of the smallest inconvenience, the category of victim for me as a Western audience member dilutes itself from meaning if not examined through a specific context.  Here, in the film, the label of victim transcends those subjected to abuse to also those who, despite enacting violence, are the offspring of its decades-long ignorance. Forgiveness might be a long shot. Empathy is neither a guarantee nor a human right. However, what should be expected is the opportunity to stand trial, not judged by the mirror image of caricature but by a deeply flawed yet human face. 


Still Image of Zian and Yonas in Capernaum

Selim: We’re insects, my friend. Don’t you get it? We’re parasites. You either accept life without papers, or you might as well jump out the window. Got it? 

Nadine Labaki, Capernaum

With four years in the making, Capernaum shocks the audience with an unforgivably cruel honesty. Selim’s abusive words to Zain when he asks him for his papers perforate us not so much because of the language employed but because of its truthfulness. Living without documentation is as if your life never officially exists. Capernaum legitimizes as real all that is left rotting in the streets of Beirut. Through Zain’s precocious eyes, we meet those who are hidden.   

In the last scene, Zain prepares himself for his picture to be taken. Jaded exhaustion is written on his face until the guard tells him that the picture is for an ID card, not a death certificate. Almost with a sigh of relief, we witness Zain’s beautiful smile. I have no words to finish this. So, I leave you here with: And he smiles

Works Cited: 

Aridi, Sara. “ Capernaum’ Is Not Just a Film, but a Rallying Cry.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Dec. 2018.

“CAPERNAUM: Q+A with Nadine Labaki, Khaled Mouzanar, and Zain al Raffea.” Youtube, California Film Institute , 20 Dec. 2018,

“CAPERNAUM Director and Editor Q&A, Sept 9 | TIFF 2018.” Youtube, TIFF Originals, 10 Sept. 2018,

Labaki, Nadine, director. Capernaum. Sony Picture Classics, 2018. 

[1] Lebanon’s minimum age of marriage is 18 years old, ratified by the Conventions on the Rights of Children in 1991. However, religious customs and generally culturally accepted beliefs that marriage as an institution can offer an impoverished family’s daughter economic livelihood as the husband is responsible for her financial well-being, escort many families into offering the daughters to participate in child marriage arrangements

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