Sunday, November 17, 2019

Right to Life?

Films: Capernaum
Format: DVD from Galena Public Public Library through interlibrary loan on Sue’s Mother’s Day present.

I’m honestly not sure where to start with Capernaum. The List frequently adds a couple of non-English movies every year. Generally speaking, that’s whatever wins Best Foreign Language Feature at the Oscars and another one. Given a guess, I would have suggested Cold War, nominated both for Foreign Language Feature and Best Director. Instead, we’ve got Capernaum, the Lebanese entry for Best Foreign Language film, and one that cannot be summarized easily. A first attempt would be to say this is the story of a young boy who sues his parents for the crime of birthing him. But that doesn’t do the story justice.

Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is 12-years-old and in prison for stabbing someone. He’s also, as the previous paragraph mentioned, suing his parents Souad and Selim (Kawthar Al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Youssef) for having him. More specifically, the case isn’t just that they had him, but that he has no papers, and thus no identity. His parents have many children, but have failed to take care of any of them, and have essentially abandoned him and his sister Sahar (Cedra Izam). A substantial amount of the story, then is understanding how we got here.

Zain and Sahar don’t go to school. Instead, they and their younger siblings do what they can to supply money to their parents to keep the family alive. The big money maker is finding ways to get prescriptions for pain killers. These are then crushed up and dissolved in water. Clothing is then soaked into the water, dried, and taken to the nearby prison where the pain killers can be extracted. Zain also works for Assad (Nour el Husseini), the family’s landlord. One day, it becomes evident that Sahar is menstruating for the first time. Knowing that this will almost certainly cause her parents to marry her off, Zain makes plans to keep that fact a secret and run away with Sahar. It doesn’t work, though, and Sahar is soon married off to Assad despite being only 11 years old.

Zain runs away anyway and meets Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an undocumented Ethiopian woman. Zain attaches himself to her and lives with her, taking care of her young son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). Eventually, Rahil’s forged papers run out, and unable to get new ones, she is picked up by authorities, leaving Zain alone without word to care for her infant. After a few days, Zain returns home to his parents to discover what has happened to Sahar and the rest of his family, and to eventually wind up in juvenile prison.

Surprisingly, in many ways Capernaum is not about the brutality of the human condition, although it absolutely could be. In a very small way, it is about hope. It is about fighting back against the darkness. While it could easily slide into nihilism and depression, it’s about the fight against that, even if the fight is an ultimately futile one, or is likely to be.

The 1001 Movies list has a lot of issues with it. While it is very much a celebration of film, there are a lot of movies on it that could be overlooked or ignored, that aren’t truly must-see before you die. There are a lot of gaps on the list, places where the listmakers have decided we don’t really need to go. The recent additions of The Greatest Showman and the latest A Star is Born are examples of the former; the continued lack of anything Ray Harryhausen ever touched is a clear example of the latter. But the List is getting better in certain ways. Films like Capernaum are worthy additions not simply because they are well made (I still haven’t seen Roma or Cold War, but this had to be serious competition), but because of the stories they tell. For all that Capernaum could be terribly depressing, it is ultimately hopeful. That’s not merely the power of the film, but the power of the message offered by writer/director Nadine Labaki.

The List is improved by more voices of women, and more voices of women from cultures where they are traditionally silenced. When the message that we get from them is one not just of struggle for survival but the potential victory over that struggle, or at least the chance to fight it to a standstill, the world is a better place as well. This could be jaded and nihilistic, and it’s not. That, more than anything, makes it worth seeing.

Why to watch Capernaum: Because there’s still hope in the middle of the worst things.
Why not to watch: You need a reason to want to watch the world burn.


  1. This is film that I have in my never-ending DVR list as I'm hoping to see this as soon as I can though there's a bunch of other films that I'm hoping to see as well.

    1. I know the feeling. I pretty regularly have a constantly-shifting stack of 10-12 movies I'm waiting to get through.

      No DVR anymore, though. No more cable/satellite for Casa de Honeywell.

  2. I got hold of Capernaum last week after being on the hold list for three or for weeks with the Los Angeles County Library system. Great movie! And with that, I got caught up with the new additions to the List.

    And a couple of days later, I got Signs & Wonders in the mail from Tasmania. One of my online friends in the 1001 community sent it to me, knowing that I was getting close to being done with the List. I watched it last night. I found it a bit of a chore at first, but I started thinking of it as a minimalist film noir, with Stellan as a noir protagonist who's in way over his head, and it worked for me a lot better. Though I think I may have been a bit tired and missed something important because I have no idea who tried to kill Andreas or why he stumbled off the cliff at the end. I hope I have time to watch it again before my friend wants it back.

    And that's it! I've seen every film on the List.

    1. So you're one ahead of me at the moment (and congrats!). I've still got Roma to see.

    2. Geez Louise! When you finished the List, I still had almost 400 films to go! It never occurred to me I would ever get caught up and then pass you! This is my gloaty, unsportsmanlike-conduct moment! Neener neener neener! Eat my dust!

    3. Seriously, I hope you enjoy Roma! It worked for me on an extra set of levels because of all the spot-on cultural references! I was laughing at every scene with the Galaxie long before they were actually doing anything funny with it. When I lived in L.A. in the late 1980s, I had a friend who drove his father's old Galaxie and I always imagined the car was a boat and Wilshire Boulevard was the Mekong River and every day was Apocalypse Now!