It’s perhaps too simplistic to compare Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s ‘Capernaum’ to last year’s Cannes smash ‘The Florida Project’, but since both films deal with the insidious nature of poverty, the incredible tenacity of the downtrodden, and the strange and surreal experience of theme parks, it’s an easy crutch for this critic to lean against.
What starts out as a conventional courtroom drama evolves into something truly extraordinary, with Labacki’s direction eliciting two of the most impressive child performances ever captured. Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is a pre-teen with a deep social conscience, rebelling against the ethically suspect behavior of his parents and attempting to live by a moral code within the midst of chaos. Through a series of deeply unfortunate events, he finds himself caring for a 1-year-old boy named Yonas (played by infant actress Boluwatife Treasure Bankole).
It’s near impossible to describe how effectively Labaki manages to draw out performances from the young actors, particularly Bankole, who through a wordless performance presents a huge range of emotions. This kind of impeccable filmmaking, both in terms of the shoot as well as what surely was a monumental editing task, sets ‘Capernaum’ apart.
Dealing directly with the refugee crisis in a modern Lebanon bursting at its seams, this is a highly specific story that works through deep, universal themes of justice. To its immense credit, the film never devolves into a saccharine showcase of poverty porn. It’s a moving, remarkable tale deserving not only of its strong showing at Cannes (Labaki was awarded the Jury prize) but of wide audience appreciation.