Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 14, 2018 6:59 pm 
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A precipitous, chaotic plunge into poverty is Nadine Labaki's best movie yet

Capernaum, the Lebanese filmmaker and actress Nadini Labaki's third feature, has been celebrated in some important places, but not everywhere. Some said it shouldn't have received the Jury Prize at Cannes this year, that as a film it is too unruly; as a cry du coeur for the poor people of Beiurut, a work of cloying sentimentality. It received a fifteen-minute standing ovation at Cannes. But artistically it leaves one with doubts. It's a deeply flawed movie, but also a vivid and powerful one.

Capernaum goes on too long (it runs just over two hours, but seems longer), but it plunges you into breathless and specific action observed in those Beirut streets. (Somewhere inside the film there is an austere opus like De Sica's Bicycle Thief gesturing to be let out - overwhelmed by a wealth of other detail. But this is nothing like Italy. It's Lebanon, fed into by refugees from Syria and other places.) Nadine Labaki is an observer of specific detail, a quality that derailed her previous two films. Here it builds a case.

Right away we meet the framing event, the prisoner, the little boy, Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), and his parents (Kawsar Al Haddad and Fadi Yousef), hauled in to answer the charges he is bringing against them. Himself sentenced for a serious crime, a stabbing, he is countering by suing his parents for the more primary sin of causing him to be born, when they were so ill-equipped to care for him. This film is highlighted, perhaps redeemed, by Zain Al Rafeea's amazing performance. He deserves to be a movie star. The framing plot idea of this existential charge would be ridiculous if it weren't so thought-provoking. Both sides have their lawyers, in their robes, who identify themselves to the judge. Pointedly, Labaki herself plays the boy's advocate. Then the flashbacks begin, which fill most of the movie.

Zain is always in motion, at first, running from one cheap pharmacy to another trying to fill a prescription supposedly for a parent who is unable to send anyone older. Next we see the family in action gathered on the floor crushing the pills, mixing them in a great bowl with water, then soaking clothes in the drug soup which the take, apparently, to a prison, and sell.

No sooner is that over, but a gang of children (are they Zain's brothers and sisters?) are on the street selling from a table set with identical morning drinks to drivers at rush hour. And instantly after that, Zain is with his sister Sahar (Haita 'Cedra' Izzam), and this is where we see that though 12 or 13, but so small he appears 9 or 10, Zain is preternaturally wise to the world. He realizes, though Sahar doesn't, that she's begun menstruating, and he hastens to protect this from being discovered, because he knows she's now in danger of being bartered off as a child bride. It's already clear Zain himself gets nothing but emotional and physical abuse at home. When his attempt fails and Sahar is sold at 11 to wed a man of 30, Zain flees.

All this just in the first few minutes. The intensity is a redeeming feature. The seeming messiness of the narrative, a quality that made Labaki's first film, Caramel, pale and meandering, suits the violence and moral chaos of Zain's world. Labaki capitalizes on this. The film's title itself, from the name of a Biblical village, means chaos. The suggestion is that extreme urban poverty hastens a survival struggle so intense that it undermines all order, including moral order. But this should not be: hence the trial.

This similarity to De Sica comes in a lengthy section, in the connection that develops between Zain and an Ethiopian refugee woman, and later when she is taken away and Zain alone has her small child in his care, leading to a more and more extreme and desperate situation. The compelling relentlessness of this sequence becomes a flaw when it goes on too long. Must Labaki's film be as exhausting and directionless as the world it depicts? She is still an unruly filmmaker. This film often skirts on the edge of miserabilism and poverty porn. But these weaknesses are redeemed by the specificity of the detail, the breathtaking realism of the locations and the intense conviction, soulful beauty, colorfully vulgar language, and breathless energy of Labaki's remarkable young star.

Capernaum/Capharnaüm/ كفرناحوم (original title), 121 mins., debuted at Cannes in Competition, winning the Jury Prize; it is Lebanon's entry in the 2019 Best Foreign Oscar competition; IMDb lists 27 festival showings. Released in France 17 Oct.: AlloCiné press rating 3.0 (mediocre). US theatrical release today, 14 Dec. 2018. Metascore 72. In NYC at Film Forum and 57 West; elsewhere at Landmark Theaters.
Originally screened in Paris Oct. 2018, rewatched on a home screener, Dec. 2018.

Zain Al Rafeea is a Syrian refugee discovered by Nabaki working as a messenger boy in Beirut. Thanks to the film, he and his family have been resettled in Norway, and he is going to school.




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