A doctor examines Zain, a young, undernourished boy. He looks 10 years old, but his teeth prove he’s actually 12 or 13. Zain challenges his parents in court; he’s about to sue them for giving him life. We can tell childhood has been rough. On the plaintiff’s side, a committed attorney is defending the boy. Her name is Nadine, and she’s portrayed by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki.
Capharnaüm tries to address a number of global social issues using modern day Beirut as its background: poverty, human trafficking, immigration, access to education… a rather ambitious duty for a two-hour-long feature. Its most shameless weakness is to position the filmmaker as the redeemer of a character that carries an underprivileged position since birth. The filmmaker is here to expose and correct whatever is wrong about society.
A few months earlier. A family of seven shares a small apartment in modern day Beirut. The whole family works together to smuggle prescribed drugs to the jail, where many of their relatives live. The oldest daughter has just had her first period. Worried, Zain improvises a maxipad with his shirt. He wants to hide his sister’s menstruation because he knows that puts her at risk of being sold to the neighbourhood’s grocer, which he cannot avoid.
Zain is portrayed by Zain Al Raffeea, a 14-year-old Syrian whose work is clearly superior despite the ridiculous treatment he receives in the screenplay: his mature, rebellious lines are hardly the words of a weak, underdeveloped pubescent boy. His best moments come in the silent, more physical scenes. This is a generalized issue: the work of the cast is not the problem, but the cheap tricks the story forces them to face.
After his sister is sold, Zain flees from home and runs into an old amusement park. He meets Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) there, an Ethiopian immigrant who works cleaning the park. Rahil agrees to give shelter to Zain as long as he takes care of her baby. Things work well for a few days.
There are immigrant raids across the city. Rahil goes missing. Zain takes care of the baby for a few days, selling everything on the streets from old pots to Tramadol shots, struggling for food and shelter since they’re evicted from their shanty house after not paying the rent. It is then that Zain surrenders and accepts an offer to exchange the baby for a refugee boat trip to Sweden. Zain only needs any sort of ID or registration to complete the exchange and leave Lebanon. He delivers the baby and returns home only to find out he’s never been registered – so he won’t be able to travel – and that his sister passed away after a young pregnancy a couple of months after she was sold. Furious, he rushes to the grocer and attacks him with a knife.
Zain is taken to jail. After a few days, he calls a TV show to talk about his case. It is then that saviour attorney Nadine learns of his case, and starts working with the boy. The ending is predictable.
Capharnaüm is driven by good intentions, yet arrogant and melodramatic. Some scenes are frankly preposterous, like Zain’s being unable to prove he’s a human because he’s not registered. The story is a catalogue of cheap tricks to manipulate and alarm the audience. Its most blatant mistake is Labaki’s decision to cast herself as the attorney: an educated woman who becomes the redeemer of the underprivileged. A self-important gesture from a woman who’s willing to exploit the social issues of her country to develop a career in cinema.