It’s the ubiquitous refrain of the young adolescent — though typically screamed by a stroppy, privileged white tween, preceding a dramatic bedroom-door-slam — “I wish I was never born!” This is more than a throwaway statement, however, for the main character of Nadine Labaki’s Capharnaüm — an impoverished Lebanese child named Zain (Zain al Rafeea), whose hatred for his life runs deep, propelling him to sue his parents for bringing him into the world.
On a structural level, Capharnaüm unfolds almost like an old mystery noir (think D.O.A., Double Indemnity, or Sunset Boulevard) — starting at its shocking end, then filling in gaps and providing context through flashbacks. The film opens with Zain in court — the 12-year-old is there not only to sue his parents, but also because he, in his words, “stabbed a son-of-a-bitch”. Like the aforementioned noirs, Capharnaüm is not a ‘whodunit’ but a ‘whydunit’— an engrossing journey to the sources of Zain’s anger and violence. By the end of the film, his course of action is not surprising at all.
His parents are, indeed, reprehensible. Seeing them trade their 11-year-old daughter for chickens early in the film, we become aligned with Zain’s assessment of them as heartless. Zain is put to work lying to pharmacists to get drugs, which his parents sell through a prison connection — a source of income, but not enough to send him to school. He soon abandons them, and though he’s accustomed to wandering the streets, his newfound estrangement intensifies the precarity of his situation. He’s now completely alone in a world where children are seen as expendable commodities. As he navigates these vicious environs, Zain projects a world-weariness and righteous anger that dares you to patronize him with pity. He snaps at any adults that come near him: “Get your fucking hands off me.”
But he is still a child, and the walls of toughness that he has built for survival come down when he is taken in by Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian refugee already struggling to care for her own baby, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). Zain watches Rahil’s interactions with Yonas intently, his vulnerability barely concealed as he tries to adjust to the heartbreakingly unfamiliar reality of an abuse-free household. Despite Zain’s hardened exterior, he clearly yearns for the love and affection that he sees between this mother and child. Al Rafeea’s performance is affecting, mesmerizing, and wholly believable — perhaps one of the best of the year. He is unforgettable. Shiferaw shines, too, gentle yet fiercely protective — there is a wonderful maternal chemistry between her and Bankole, a toddler who melts the heart.
In his insistence on holding adults — even his own parents — accountable, Zain’s moralistic anger burns up the screen. Single-minded in his desire for justice, Zain refuses to let his parents off the hook, or enable their actions with his forgiveness. They are abusive, and he feels no pity for them when they cry. In a role reversal, Zain’s disappointment in, and recrimination of, his sheepish parents turns him into a kind of authority figure. His parents, and indeed the adults of the world, are made more pathetic by the fact that they are being called to account by a child.
Zain is wrong, of course, to suggest that poor people should be banned from reproducing. It’s a ludicrous and dangerous idea — the problem is poverty, not the people in it. But I would argue that the absurdity of this reproach is the point, hammering home Zain’s nihilism while simultaneously exposing his 12-year-old naiveté. The premise of the lawsuit is strange and irrational, but not from an abused child’s perspective. The extremity of Zain’s demand reveals his pain. While some critics have denounced the formal setting of the court as unrealistic, this, to me, felt intentional — a kind of wish-fulfilment for all the world’s impoverished and abused children in which, finally, they have a platform to speak for themselves.
Capharnaüm is now showing in Australian cinemas.
Ivana Brehas (a.k.a. Joaquin Shenix) is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm (Melbourne). She has written for Dazed, Much Ado About Cinema, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She is currently completing her MA in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.