Everything about “Capharnaum” looked good, for a while. Nadine Labaki, its talented filmmaker, the trailer (“some squirt with killer looks stands in front of a judge in a Beirut court and tells him, “I want to sue my parents for having given birth to me”), the promise of a social drama examining Lebanese society, a film by a woman, going up for the top prize in Cannes.
Labaki set out to make a movie about childhood. When young Zain (the aforementioned litigious kid) decides to sue his parents, he does so on behalf of all adults who have children whom they cannot afford to raise, “lack of love” becoming the new punishable offense in a 21st century Middle East that’s been shaken by conflict, poverty and corruption.
Trial scenes bookend “Capharnaum,” the middle part being devoted to Zain’s escape from his home and journey through the streets of Beirut, where we discover an extremely poor Lebanon in which abandoned children, left to their own devices, roam the streets and fight for their daily survival.
With close-ups of Zain’s forlorn face, his beautiful but somber gaze, the oft-sentimental “Capharnaum” (soaring arias, lots of them, in this movie) maintains great intimacy and realism. As he zig zags between various random places, sometimes carrying Yonas, an infant child he was tasked with watching, as viewer it’s hard not become emotionally involved when faced with the inhumanity, despair and chaos that Zain has to contend with. When casting for her film Labaki looked for people who had had similar real-life experiences as that of the characters they would play. Young Zain Al-rafeea, a real-life Syrian refugee, was deprived of education and did odd jobs so he could eat. The person who portrays his mother had no fewer than sixteen children, some whom died early on, while others were put up in an orphanage.
Whatever tugged at me during the film became clear towards the end, during the scenes from the trial, which were told through a series of simple shot and reverse shots between the youngster and the judge. At some point, the latter asks, “why are you here, who are you suing?” Zain responds, “I am suing my parents for giving me birth to me, this goes for all parents who gives birth to children in a world as miserable as ours.” That’s when an almost involuntary response was triggered in me. It wasn’t credible. A child like Zain would not say this in real-life, giving pronouncements on the state of Lebanese society would seem far-removed from his daily preoccupations. The trial part should’ve been left out.
Here, Labaki no longer made a feature film, this wasn’t art anymore, it was a PR operation, something that UNICEF could use soundbites from.
Once a filmmaker crosses into marketing territory in such an explicit way, she takes away from cinema, the art of it, her film becomes vulgarized for the broadest segment of the population, what we have now before us is filmmaking reduced to digestible fodder. “Ah. This is what the filmmaker wants us to understand. How we must apprehend this great problem of poverty, and childhood, and survival, in these regions is being shown to us, let us be grateful to the filmmaker for showing us the right way to think about this.”
I will admit, I am overreacting. “Capharnaum” is a first-rate film that is the product of a very ambitious project by the Arab world’s foremost woman auteur filmmaker, and one that deserves prizes (a Palme D’Or would not surprise me). And the fact that the “cause” that Labaki is perpetrating on her viewers via a film is self-evident, and highly worthy, is not, I believe, relevant here. But in thinking back on cinema’s history about the great films of before, cinema was purely art, then, and not a way to also disguise (hardly, in this case) one’s personal causes. When Bunuel brought”Los Olvidados” to the Cannes Festival in the early fifties, he hadn’t meant to publicize the plight of poor Mexican children, he made cinema.