Amazing that the phrase “one note” typically denotes work lacking depth; most people who only play one note can’t even hit the note right, much less give it dimension. Lebanese actress and filmmaker Nadine Labaki falls between these two poles. Her new movie, Capernaum, knows the note it’s trying to sustain, and knows how to keep the tune going. She’s a fine artist, but the relentless, unpleasant note she strikes goes on for far too long, with minimal reprieve from its misery and even less nuance to lend it more than a singular identity. Stick a bicycle pump in a Sally Struthers’ ChildFund commercials, hire Christopher Nolan to write the copy, then have Paul Greengrass shoot the thing, and that’s Capernaum in a nutshell: two hours of punishing poverty tourism that feels twice as long, only occasionally stopping briefly enough for its implications to sink in.
Part of the problem here is structural. Labaki bookends Capernaum, titled after the Israeli fishing village that serves as the setting for Jesus’s greatest miracles, with courtroom drama staged between 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) and his parents, mother Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and father Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef), presented as heartless monsters who foist squalor and heap abuse upon their seemingly innumerable children. Zain’s on the stand for stabbing “a son of a bitch with a knife,” not a kids-say-the-darndest-things joke but a statement of fact: He’s really guilty of stabbing a man, though if it’s any consolation, the man’s a creep who lusts after and eventually marries Zain’s 11-year-old sister (Cedra Izam), and then worse. Hence the stabbing.
There’s more to Zain’s testimony. He’s suing mom and dad for the crime of bringing him into the world. This is an ingenious existential twist, almost unexpected but for the world-weary adult wisdom Zain has packed into his slight frame. When life forces you into adulthood before you’ve even reached your teens, you tend to grow up fast. He argues his case well. The trouble is that the courtroom melodrama clangs against the neo-realist bent Labaki adopts in telling the story of how he got from the Hell on earth of, apparently, Beirut into its legal system. Capernaum is in need of a brisk plot edit—it insists on getting in its own way.
Labaki’s filmmaking suggests uncertainty at best and lack of confidence at worst. She layers on the suffering too thick. Grant that Capernaum’s world isn’t built on compassion; more gauche than poverty tourism is poverty sentimentalism. Zain and his fellow castmates are non-professional actors. It’s possible, even probable, that the experiences captured by the film derive from experiences with which they’re familiar. Glazing over that with sugary artifice would deal greater insult to Capernaum’s reenactment of their realities than would its overemphasis of their realities.
But that doesn’t make the overemphasis easier to tolerate, much less acquit it of the intangible but unmistakable sense of exploitation. One moment after another, Labaki assails viewers with images of circumstances so grim that “hand to mouth” sounds generous as a descriptor. Being homeless seems preferable to being in a house with Selim and Souad. Eventually Zain liberates himself from their custody and moves in with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, who, it’s worth noting, is actually a girl), Ethiopian immigrants likewise living on the knife’s edge of destitution.
Here, Labaki finds a rhythm where good and bad are in balance: Rahil and Zain carry the burden of their hardships even after they find each other, but at least they’re able to wring respite out of their company and their shared exhaustion. It doesn’t last. It can’t. Even in a stronger cut of the film, it’s necessary that after a time, Rahil and Zain must part ways, or that their relationship must change. When Capernaum gets to that breaking point, Labaki returns to the rhythm she knows best and once again begins an endless cycle of heaping one ignominy on Zain after another. By the time he actually gets around to jamming a knife in his brother-in-law, the act of violence comes as a kind of relief, even though it takes place off screen.
Which is probably not what Labaki’s going for, but when the impetus of one’s film is aggressive depiction of impoverishment? Even attempted murder looks like a way out of a bad situation. Capernaum and Labaki mean well. They just don’t have enough notes.
Director: Nadine Labaki
Writers: Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojaily, Michelle Keserwany, Georges Khabbaz, Khaled Mouzanar
Starring: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Kawthar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Youssef, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Cedra Izam
Release Date: January 25, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.