by Brandon Thomas
“I want to sue my parents!” a defiant pre-teen child exclaims inside of a crowded courtroom. Everyone – his parents, the judge, the attorneys – appears stunned. As his initial outburst lingers in the air, the boy explains further:
“Because I was born.”
Our world can be a horrific place. Unfortunately, children aren’t spared from these horrors. Capernaum follows one child as he tries to make sense of his place in a world that’s constantly placing greater and greater hurdles in front of him.
The streets of Beirut are the playground for headstrong Zain (Zain Al Rafeea). When not selling cheap cups of juice in the gutter, Zain spends his days working in a small shop to appease his parent’s landlord. Even at such a young age, Zain has been tasked with providing for his large family. The abrasiveness of Zain’s demeanor is quickly overshadowed by his need to take care of his siblings and keep them all together.
Capernaum isn’t subtle about where it lays blame. The neglect from adults is directly responsible for the misery these children endure. Zain and his siblings are only valuable to their parents because of what they can provide for them; not because they’re human beings. Even the lone caring adult in Zain’s life puts him in a situation that no child should be in.
The movie isn’t a miserable experience by any means, but it doesn’t shy away from the hardships these characters suffer. In fact, that honesty is what makes Capernaum so compelling. Knowing there are real children like Zain who live this kind of bleak existence helps give the story weight.
Al Rafeea is a revelation in his acting debut. A real life Syrian refugee, Al Rafeea conveys a weariness that cannot be faked. He plays Zain as a hardened, street-smart kid, but allows the cracks in that facade to show. Zain wants the chance to be a regular kid, and those few moments when he is truly happy are simultaneously joyous and heartbreaking.
The honesty of the story and the lead performance make Capernaum a riveting experience.