“Capharnaüm” by Nadine Labaki

This article is also available in: Italiano

Capharnaüm is the latest incredible work by Nadine Labaki who observed the viewer to plunge into the absurd normality of the suburbs of Beirut. A film to be seen absolutely so subtle and profound the themes and meanings that revolve behind it


Zain El Hajj, a 12-year-old raised in a poor Beirut neighborhood, is serving a five-year prison sentence in Roumieh Prison for stabbing someone he refers to as a “son of a bitch”. His parents, like Zain himself, don’t know his age as they never received an official certificate. The boy filed a lawsuit against them for bringing him into the world, thus condemning him to a miserable life. Meanwhile, the Lebanese authorities try a group of illegal migrant workers, including a young Ethiopian woman named Rahil.

The trial is an opportunity to retrace Zain’s story several months before being arrested.

Absurd normality

“Capernaum” means “disordered place where objects accumulate”, a perfect metaphor for what we see throughout the film. In fact, in this film by Nadine Labaki, we are catapulted into the suburbs of Beirut, an environment that seems to be part of a very different dimension from ours and from which it seems almost impossible to escape. The protagonists of the film are those who, in one way or another, try to emerge from this mass of battered objects, putting their dreams and desires in front of the risk and danger that such an escape entails.

Yonas and Zain

Precisely for this reason, none of them are afraid to use creative solutions to achieve their goal, adapting them, in form, to the means they have available. This gives life to “an absurd normality” which is the true soul of the story, permeating every aspect of it and every comma, thus creating the ideal substrate for the plot to proceed. The viewer is thus led to become part of the story too, transforming his concept of “right” and “normal” with the progress of the film. If in the first scenes we will be almost shocked by Zain’s behavior, at the end we will better understand his path, coming to support him strongly even in moments when the reasoning becomes extreme.

Neither heroes nor villains

Precisely this element of “escape” differentiates in a decisive way protagonists and characters, with the first ones who are also and above all characterized by their refusal of what they are experiencing, intimately convinced that getting out of it is difficult but possible. The “bad guys” in this case are precisely those who have surrendered, who have allowed themselves to drown gently in this sad and suffocating hell, accepting that, in order to survive, they are forced to accept inhumanity; become animals to not have to remember the disgusting in which you have lived for a long time, almost like selling your soul to the devil in exchange for less guilt.


However, for this reason, it is a film without heroes, and it is improper to compare it to “The millionaire“, a film in which this figure is present and absolutely decisive. In Boyle’s film, in fact, we can observe a sort of “search and rescue of the lady” which here is absolutely absent, as well as “true villains”. For charity, as for impact the two films have many traits in common, in “Capernaum” however we want to tell the normality of every day, in “The millionaire”, on the contrary, an Odyssey. Precisely for this reason, Nadine Labaki’s work is sweeter but with the precise intent to change the viewer’s gaze, rather than actually causing it to become upset. Films to see absolutely, very difficult to report in writing all the ideas and reflections that it puts on stage, a masterpiece of contemporary Arab cinema.

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