It’s been some time since I’ve been knocked so completely sideways by a movie but Nadine Labaki’s latest Capernaum (Chaos) has succeeded absolutely. Ostensibly a story about a young boy suing his parents, it is actually so much more than that. Deserved winner of the Jury prize at this year’s Cannes this is a movie that will stay with you long after you stumble out of the screening.
Zain (an utterly astonishing Zain Al Raffea) is twelve. Or thereabouts, his parents living in a kind of underclass in Beirut to the point that none of their growing family are even registered with the authorities. He lives his life working at a local store and caring for his slightly younger sister. Trouble is on the horizon though as the owner of the store has designs on the eleven year old and soon the family have married her off to him, causing Zain to flee the house in a fit of fury after an unsuccessful escape attempt with his sister. Meeting Cockroach Man on a bus, Zain follows him to the fairground he works at and soon meets an illegal Ethiopian maid who takes him in and uses him for childcare with her toddler. When she is picked up by the authorities, Zain is left literally holding the baby and with the dodgy local bandit who fixes passports and traffics people breathing down his neck to take the child from him, life has heaped a grave burden on the child.
This is an incredibly difficult movie to watch at times but we are saved from complete despair by the sheer humanity exuding from Zain. It really is a miraculous performance for such a young actor but, like his character, he deals with it with a level of maturity that way outstrips his years. The movie also has a wonderful lightness of touch just when you need it most. The aforementioned Cockroach Man bumps into Zain just in time to save him and us from despair and his subsequent attempts at helping Rahil by pretending to be her sponsor are as hilarious as they are ultimately soul destroying.
The way that Labaki structures her tale neatly sows the seeds of concern from the outset - we first meet Zain as he is transported to court for the hearing regarding him suing his parents. From there we get snatches of the court conversation before flashes back to the events that unfolded. We’re given just enough information about the future to make us uneasy, putting into context the events that unfold.
There is way too much in this movie to go into in a Festival review but suffice to say, it’s one of the most impressive pieces of film I have seen for some time. The characters are believable and the constant threat of exploitation, both adults on children and adults on each other, make this a hair-raising ride. But it is such a massively rewarding ride. Even as we empathise with Zain’s attempts to protect his sister, we are forced to watch as he wipes lipstick off her and tells her the dress she is wearing makes her look like a witch - echoes of the patriarchal controlling behaviour at the root of the society.
This is a movie that I will definitely come back to, it is funny, heart wrenching, emotional without being manipulative and so full of heart it makes yours want to burst. And, whilst it’s an incredbly difficult watch in places, it is a movie that will leave you filled with hope, despite everything. If I see a better movie this Festival I’ll be amazed. But still nowhere near as amazed as I am about this beautiful piece of work.