Posts Tagged ‘Yordanos Shiferaw’

I still remember the moment, about fifteen years ago, when I realised that – for the first time ever – I had seen every film up for that year’s Best Picture Oscar. It’s a little trickier these days, what with the shortlist having got longer and so on, but I usually do pretty well. The ultimate goal, I suppose, would be to watch every film nominated in every category at the Oscars, but as this would involve tracking down (for example) all the nominated short films, and also of course suggest that I felt the Oscars actually have some significance or artistic value, I am inclined not to bother.

To be honest, a quick skim through this year’s list reveals there are only a handful of nominees I didn’t see, anyway. In terms of feature films, there’s really just The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which I expect I’ll watch at some point, and At Eternity’s Gate, which I’m not sure is even going to get a UK release [Authoritative as ever: it came out the week after I wrote this. Hey ho – A] . Even in the perennially-obscure (not to mention patronising and Anglo-centric) world of the Best Foreign Language film, I see that I have already checked out Roma, Shoplifters, and Cold War – just leaving Never Look Away and Capernaum as the outliers. And, as chance would have it, Capernaum is showing at the Phoenix currently, even though nobody there seems to be entirely sure how to pronounce the film’s title.

The film is directed by Nadine Labaki and is set, though it takes a while for this to become clear, in the slums of Beirut in the present day. The style is initially oblique: we see a young boy receiving a medical examination, and a group of women who are in prison. Eventually it settles down to become a court-room drama, albeit a very unusual one in a number of ways. The boy, Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), is suing his parents (Kawthar Al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Youssef) for giving birth to him. He is currently in prison for assaulting someone with a deadly weapon, and the rest of the film is a series of flashbacks detailing what led up to his crime and subsequent arrest.

We are shown various scenes from the lives of Zain and his family: his parents, who are almost irredeemably worthless and contemptible low-lives, have no qualms about using their many children to assist in all manner of squalid scams, up to and including drug-dealing. Zain puts up with it all until the decision is made to effectively sell his eleven-year-old sister as a child bride to their landlord (if nothing else it should bring about some kind of rent rebate). Furious and disgusted, Zain runs away from home.

What’s happened so far is appalling enough, but – and you can take my word on this, although Capernaum is a film which you really should try to see – it manages to get worse, and worse, and worse. Zain ends up living with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal immigrant from Ethiopia who works as a cleaner, and in return for his board he looks after her toddler son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). But then Rahil disappears without an explanation, and Zain is forced to take on the responsibility for feeding and caring for himself and Yonas on a full-time basis…

Have you ever noticed how the foreign movies that the Academy takes a shine to are never sparkling screwball comedies or heartwarming tales of, well, I don’t know, warmed hearts? Just this year alone, the Best Picture Not in the English Language category features films about child kidnapping, the Nazi eugenics programme, infant mortality, and a suicide pact – and that’s just a quick skim of the subject matter of these films. This is before we even get started on Capernaum.

I’ve been to see some depressing films in recent years – I don’t mean films which are dispiritingly inept in their conception and execution, none of your Holmes and Watsons or Peter Rabbits, but ones which seem to actively set out to make the viewer feel a profound sense of existential misery about the world around them (this kind of film is arguably surplus to requirements at the moment, as glancing at the news will have essentially the same effect on any sane person). Even within this somewhat niche category, Capernaum is rather exceptional.

This is not, by any conventional metric, a horror movie, but I can recall seeing few things at the cinema as genuinely horrible as the various tribulations suffered by Zain and the other main characters in the film. This is the kind of stuff that would not have made it past the editor of the Book of Job on the grounds of it being too extreme: it is probably even more bleak than Grave of the Fireflies, a film it occasionally has points of similarity to.

The film’s title apparently translates into English as Chaos, and this seems to me to be rather apt, for it depicts a world where the most basic social and moral principles have broken down: most centrally, parents abandon any responsibility for the welbeing of their children, and the world at large shows no sign of taking any interest in them as they slip through the cracks. Any sane, decent, empathetic person will be moved to profound anger and despair by this film.

I suspect I am not doing a great job of selling the film to you: who, after all, forks out their cash and gives up a couple of hours of their life simply to be bummed out? A fair point. Well, there are a few things that keep Capernaum from being quite as miserable an experience as I’m probably making it sound. Firstly, it is simply very capably directed and photographed: Labaki (who appears in the film in a small role) has worked some kind of miracle by filming on the streets of Beirut with non-professional child actors and still producing a film which feels totally authentic. The quality of the performance of Zain al Rafeea is also exceptional – this kid is built out of solid star quality, and you can’t help but care about him and want to see what happens to him. He’s playing a child who doesn’t have a chance to be a child, and al Rafeea gives us both the tough shell and the vulnerable kid within, often at the same time. One of the big moments of the film comes when he smiles, for what seems like the first time – suddenly he looks very young and innocent again, and I promise it will break your heart.

The film’s other miracle is that it is a movie about suffering children that manages never once to feel sentimental in any way: profoundly emotionally moving, yes, but there are no cheap tricks involved. It works for every second of its running time to earn the responses it gets. I find that I cannot praise this film enough, although I must confess I’m in no hurry to watch it again. If nothing else, it takes things which are profoundly ugly and from them produces something of almost transcendent beauty – and if that’s not genuine art, I don’t know what is.

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