Nadine Labaki’s cinematic dissection of hopelessness and salvation in Lebanese society

Savina Petkova on Nadine Labaki’s ‘Capernaum’ (2018)

A young boy washes a girl’s clothes which are soaked in blood. No, this is not the aftermath of a violent scene, it is a representation of an impossible coming-of-age as a brother helps his younger sister to hide her first menstruation. While dealing with menstruation on film is still a taboo to be overcome (with the exception of Carrie (1976) and 20th Century Women (2016), this is just one example of how Nadine Labaki’s new film leaves a lasting impression. Capernaum / Capharnaüm is a shattering and captivating realistic story of a tragically subverted parent-child hierarchy, of a world stripped of its glory, following the excruciating toils of Zain (newcomer Zain Al Rafeea), a 12-year old Lebanese boy who seeks to sue his parents for giving birth to him.

The script, co-written with frequent collaborator Jihad Hojeily (Caramel, 2007), centres on themes of poverty, child labour, abuse, and identity crises manifested with heartbreaking verism. Indeed Caphernaum offers a reflection on the social aftermath of the (ongoing) Middle Eastern conflict, where economic as well as social gaps seem unbridgeable whilst institutions are anti-humanitarian – homo homini lupus est (man is wolf to man), as the Latin proverb goes. As in her previous Where Do We Go Now? (2011), Labaki does not take an overt political stance but investigates the undeniable expansion of familial misfortune and grief.

The film starts with a ruptured familial hierarchy: Zain sits opposed to the lawfully accused, his parents – Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef) and Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad). Institutional conventions seem irrelevant due to a state of exception, as Zain has no birth certificate, nor identity papers. This condemned and chaotic anonymity is the haunting underpinning of all that goes bad in Labaki’s film. Its social message exposes the issues of non-registered children, illegal immigrants — all liminal figures of a societal order that ends up conveniently forgetting them. Capernaum goes as far as to suggest that institutions perpetuate the cycle of poverty and even kill individuals of unconfirmed status by refusing them healthcare.

As Labaki plunges her scalpel even deeper into this cinematic dissection of Lebanese society, we find a subverted family structure disclosed. It is merely a structure, for it has its formal members: authoritative father, detached mother, and too many children to be fit in one scenic space. Zero intimacy binds this group of people whose shared floor which serves as a bed to everyone. The only exception being the special relationship between Zain and his younger sister Sahar (touching Cedra Izam). Their bond is one of shared conspiracy: Zain helps his sister hide the fact that she’s of sexual age; he even takes off his own shirt to be used as a pad, since he knows she will be sold in marriage. The film’s ambivalent attitude towards sexual fertility stands for the impossibility of coming-of-age. Zain is the one to explain to his sister what menstruation means, because he foresees the dangers of her ransom. In a violently patriarchal family that barely makes ends meet, the chances of being sold into marriage seem immense as Sahar’s own identity is continuously scaled down to a subject of the building’s landlord’s desire.

The ethical violation of child marriage, especially for economic purposes, is conveyed by the subsequent events, yet a verdict is always present in the protagonist’s fierce voice. In the eyes of Zain, every injustice should be ruthlessly called out, cursed at, and fought against: he is the only one who dares to stand up to his parents, to oppose what he perceives as wrong. The excruciating parting sequence uses the wide staircase of the house as a tragic topos; Zain tries to pull Sahar away from the arms of the people who want to sell her off. It is already evident that parental authority exceeds the uncontrollable screams (especially when muted by the sublime tension of Khaled Mouzanar’s music). Zain’s devotion to keep the femininity intact by the ferociousness of the adult world is an atonement for the destructive decision-making of his parents.

The film’s title, “caphernaum”, meaning “accumulation of disorderly objects”, draws attention to a possible establishing of order: only through chaos can we conceive order. Those two concepts presuppose each other like binaries we usually regard as self-explanatory such as: moral-immoral, right-wrong, human-inhuman. The truth is, today, as the film shows, the realm of ethics has become a realm of negotiation and commerce. The world of grown-ups is repulsive, atrocious, and the unattainable childhood here is the opposite of Romanticism ideals. All of Western literary canon seems inappropriate compared to the example of a child trying to provide for another child.

The visceral depiction of Zain’s crusade against injustice demands recognition from Western spectators accustomed to shrugging their shoulders. By the themes advanced, the extrapolated treatment of imminent problems of identity and legal status, Capernaum is not a cathartic film and there is no cleansing of the anguish of this endless accumulation of pain represented. Even in its rare joyful, life-affirming moments, such as the ending sequence when a group of volunteers sing a song to lift the spirits in the prison where Zain and Rahil are both held. Their sound elevates to an all-encompassing promise of salvation, even as the weight of human-engineered hopelessness lingers on.

Showing in cinemas now

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.