If “Capernaum” had a thesis, it would be the reason twelve-year-old protagonist Zain El Hajj (Zain al Rafeea, debut) gives for taking his parents to civil court: “Because I was born.”
Out of context, Zain’s request may register as absurd. How could giving life to someone ever be seen as a crime? Why would a child criminalize his own existence? And what court of law would hear such a claim? But in the context of Nadine Labaki’s (“Where Do We Go Now?”) unabashed film depicting life on the bottom socioeconomic tier in Lebanon, she unveils the traumatic blows Zain has sustained from every angle by age 12, so that by the end, it is hardly Zain’s testament that seems absurd. Instead, it is the life his family and his society have left him with, as well as the so-called justice system intended to protect the wounded like him, that we are called to interrogate.
Labaki skillfully navigates these commentaries with the episodic construction of “Capernaum.” She punctuates the chaos of her protagonist’s life with scenes from the court case in which Zain sues his parents, making almost loyal returns from Zain’s turbulent existence to that space of alleged law and order. This juxtaposition creates a tension in the middle of which Zain suffers immensely but shines resiliently.
In the episodes of the chaos, we encounter a triad of parental figures: Zain’s impoverished, downtrodden parents who neglect their many children; Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an undocumented migrant worker from Ethiopia and single mother of infant Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole); and, although he is only 12 years old, Zain. This trio is structured around the parental neglect and absence — the kind that stems from adverse social conditions and selfishness — from putting one’s own survival in front of that of your children. In moments of self-sacrifice, these parental figures move to the apex of the trio; Labaki represents selflessness as the cornerstone of love rather than the antithesis of survival.
But when we ask that sacrifice of a child, when we ask someone who needs nurturing of their own to be a self-reliant nurturer, we see how a boy begins to see lifegiving as a crime. Zain is unguarded. He has an extensive repertoire of obscenities. He knows what could happen to a young girl like his sister once she starts menstruating and is seen as a woman. Zain knows what could happen to a child like Yonas if he is not fiercely cared for. He shouldn’t, but he does, and he uses that knowledge to care for the vulnerable when no one else will.
In the commission of this tall order of care and protection, Zain breaks the law. We learn that the courtroom scene is not Zain’s first appearance in court, that he is serving a five-year sentence for stabbing his sister’s husband, roughly triple her age. The same way Labaki complexifies Zain’s explanation for the suing his parents, she does the same with Zain’s carceral status. It sounds acceptable, if not prudent, that Zain do time for his violence. Taken with the episodes of trauma, however, it is the legal system that begins to seem absurd. The prospect of removing crime from its circumstances and deciding what individual gets to atone for societal ills and of looking at a child offender with the same removed contempt as one would look at an adult offender are absurdities in Labaki’s book. Children like Zain stand and flinch in their crosshairs.
Zain is the heart and the heartbreak of “Capernaum.” Through the mature, foulmouthed, brave, selfless, strong character of twelve-year-old Zain, Labaki unabashedly shows us how what we expect from children measures up to what we give. At the same time, we entrust children with the cross-generational hope for change, we expect them to fend for that without laying the groundwork for that change. We repeat our parents’ mistakes, we resign to flawed institutions, and yet somehow still expect change. That is why we need to see Labaki’s Zain. We learn from his stories and his crimes, his unlikely triumphs and his naïve failures. We need the painful reckoning of “Capernaum.”