Everything in this film hangs on its final shot. Right at the end it gives you something that until those last moments you hadn’t realised you’d not seen but suddenly and desperately need to and then it delivers. It is a tiny moment but because of everything that has come before it carries huge power.
Capernaum tells the story of Zain, a probably twelve year old boy, living and surviving with practically nothing in Lebanon. At the start he and his family are shown to be suffering unimaginable poverty and then it only gets worse from there. It isn’t an easy movie to watch but that ending gives you the tiniest moment of catharsis and it is just enough, no more and no less, just enough to make it bearable and rewarding. Without it the heartbreak might be too much but with it this is an emotional but satisfying experience. It is one second and one facial expression but it is the best single scene I have seen in cinema so far this year. This is definitely the work of a film maker who knows how to balance what she wants her audience to see and what they need to and the craft demonstrated is exceptional.
Nadine Labaki has been directing films for around ten years with her work focussing on Lebanese society and the effects on this of a restrictive society and the fall out of war. These themes are evident in Capernaum but only as background as the focus never leaves the immediate experience of its young protagonist and spends no more time thinking about why things are as they are than he does. Labaki has enjoyed the attention of the Cannes Film Festival right from the start of her career behind the camera (she is also an actor) but with Capernaum’s nomination for Best Foreign Language at the Oscars is now beginning to get the wider attention her skill deserves.
Even before it’s close the film shows excellent balance in its story telling. Yes, Zain’s life is a battle but in amongst the tragedy there are also moments of humour and beautiful examples of human connection. While it concentrates on an underclass it also finds a way of showing how the wealthier elements of society respond to what is going on in their cities. We see people judge others way of life (literally) but also how they accept this and in some cases turn a blind eye until it bleeds onto their TV screens. There is also a brilliant moment in which Zain’s mother, who has been demonised for her treatment of her son, is suddenly the voice for those in her awful situation.
Capernaum is reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire in how it features a street kid telling his story as a defence for his actions and how media attention offers him some delivery from the life he is trapped in. It is so much subtler than anything you’d see in mainstream cinema though and brings harder earned treats. I could say so much more about the film but to discuss specifics would be to lessen the impact for those that haven’t seen it. It isn’t the kind of movie most people would choose for a night out at the pictures but it is definitely worth a couple of hours of your time and we should all take the opportunity to recognise and celebrate the work of any exciting female directors. I promise that seeing this movie will benefit you and I hope that it might just, very slightly, make the world a better place. In the end highlighting the need for that is ultimately the message of the film.