There is a moment in Nadine Labaki’s CAPERNAUM which perfectly encapsulates the profound conundrum it presents. Her face crumpled with premature age and agony, Saoud (Kawthar Al Haddad), makes a plea to a judge that will ultimately decide the fate of her family.
We, the audience, feel as if she is imploring us directly: don’t judge me. You haven’t walked a single step in my shoes
Saoud and her husband, Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef), are plaintiffs in a case brought against them by their own 12-year old son, Zain (Zain Al Rafeea). Portrayed with a wrenching authenticity – in the sense, the child was plucked by the film-makers from the streets of Lebanon, himself a Syrian refugee – that requires both a delicately objective eye and an unflinching moral confidence. He is suing them for bringing him into the world
Zain isn’t precocious; he has mentally aged beyond his tender years out of sheer necessity. If not for his ingenious money making schemes (including dissolving prescription drugs in water to sell on the street as special ‘juice’) and quick hands, he would have long ago become a forgotten statistic. In Sweden, “Children only die of natural causes,” a fellow juvenile ‘entrepreneur’ tells him, her dirt-smeared face brimming with hope.
Zain runs away from home (a dilapidated, communal apartment building provided rent-free; we are never specifically told what arrangement the family has with their landlord, but it is undoubtedly exploitative) after the forced departure of his beloved sister, Sahar (Cedra Izam).