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March 7, 2021

Cinema Review: Capharnaum

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The word Capharnaum means ‘a disorderly accumulation of objects’, an apt description of this story set amidst the cluttered poverty of Beirut. Zain, aged 12, lives with his parents and eight sisters in a single-room apartment. His closest friend, his sister Sahar, is just 11 when their parents sell her into marriage with a local shopkeeper. Outraged, Zain runs away from home and finds himself homeless in a slum. He finds shelter with illegal immigrant Rahil and her infant son, Yonas. When Rahil is arrested, Zain is left alone to care for the baby without food or money. Hardship turns to desperation when Zain and Yonas are evicted from the tiny slum dwelling and are forced to survive on the streets. Our heroes find themselves in increasing danger, and we realise that no matter how bad things are, they can quickly get worse 

Director Nadine Labaki intended to portray a child’s view of the hardships caused by military conflict in the Middle East, and Capharnaum powerfully delivers. Actor Zain Al Rafeea, himself a Syrian refugee, is luminous as the lead character Zain. Much of the film focuses on Zain, his two-year-old charge Yonas, played by actress Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, and Yonas’s mother Rahil, brilliantly portrayed by Yordanos Shiferaw. The film is strengthened by a memorable supporting cast and, in the style of Fellini, director Labaki uses many non-actors on screen. This rawness coupled with haunting music and intimate natural camera work gives the effect of a documentary journey through ramshackle slums meeting powerful characters who live with extreme hardship 

Capharnaum is an astonishing film with intelligence and heart offering an extraordinary depiction of life in the war-torn Middle East. Its startling social realism and riveting performances have earned a torrent of international accolades, including a 15-minute standing ovation at its premiere at Cannes in 2018 where it won the Jury Prize, and a nomination for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars. Numerous generals and colonels are thanked in the credits, a reminder of the difficulties of filming in Lebanon. Capharnaum definitely deserves to be seen.

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  1. This is truly a great, heart wrenching film which brutally exposes the harsh conditions of life for refugees without visas trying to live in Beirut’s slums. The aerial shots of myriads of shacks all with roof tyres and then the descent into the squalid alleys hits our taken-for-granted lifestyle privileges hard. So much of humanity has to eke out life on a shoestring while a handful of the mega rich have more wealth than many countries. Change must be fought for.


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