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Capernaum

Movie review by
Michael Ordona, Common Sense Media
Capernaum Movie Poster Image
Powerful, gritty Lebanese drama shows kids in danger.
  • R
  • 2018
  • 121 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Highlights the extremely bleak conditions faced by children in extreme poverty in Lebanon, as well as the result of horrific child abuse. But this is done in a way that is ultimately intended to promote empathy for others; all hope and humanity are definitely not lost.

Positive Role Models & Representations

A handful of good people in this very dark, largely heartless world. Two main characters -- a 12-ish-year-old boy and a woman who shows compassion to him -- demonstrate real empathy, determination. They never lose their humanity, even when all conspires against them. Other authority figures (parents, neighbors, officials) are much less sympathetic.

Violence

Discussion of a boy stabbing an adult man; at one point, the boy is shown taking/holding a large knife. Many scenes of physical, verbal, environmental, circumstantial child abuse; kids are repeatedly put in extremely dangerous situations for profit or due to negligence, are underfed or told how worthless they are. Constant threat of peril to kids, including rape, child marriage, human trafficking, but the acts aren't shown on-screen. Violent acts and fatal injuries to kids occur offscreen.

Sex

Small children are subjected to the sounds of adult sex taking place next to them. An 11-year-old girl has her first period, is sold to a husband, impregnated (offscreen). A boy bares the breasts of a female statue on a carnival ride. Nonsexual images of breasts shown in context of nursing/expressing milk.

Language

Frequent profanity, much of it spoken by a child or directed at one, including "f--k," "s--t," "a--hole," "c--ksucker," "d--khead," "crap," "goddamn."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A family involves small children in a prescription-drug acquisition and smuggling scheme; a boy later repeats the actions himself, selling drugs. Much cigarette smoking, often around babies.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Capernaum is a sobering, gritty, powerful drama about a young boy struggling to survive and protect a baby on the streets of a poverty-stricken area of Lebanon. While it's not bloody, it's definitely sad and upsetting; the story involves severe child abuse (emotional, physical, verbal -- you name it) and the constant threat of peril to young children, including human trafficking and rape. There's also talk of a boy stabbing an adult man (at one point, the knife he uses is shown), and you can expect frequent strong language ("f--k," "s--t," "a--hole," "c--ksucker," etc.) and adults who involve children in their drug trade. The film was directed and co-written by Nadine Labaki and is Lebanon's submission for the 2019 Academy Awards.

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What's the story?

In CAPERNAUM, Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a boy around 12, must fend for himself -- and a baby named Yonas -- on the streets of an extremely rough part of Lebanon. He and other, smaller children face severe abuse and threats, including human trafficking, as they try to survive. Zain's path will ultimately lead to a consequential act of violence.

Is it any good?

It's one savage gut punch after another as Zain -- a resourceful, brave boy who has somehow developed real empathy in a world that doesn't value children -- suffers many horrific blows. Capernaum ("Chaos") can be very hard to watch, since it shows young children in dangerous, abusive situations. Zain's selfless love for his sister and for Yonas is palpable; it's hard to imagine not being touched by his efforts to nurture and protect them. Lebanon's official entry for the 91st Academy Awards joins other affecting 2018 films such as Lean on Pete and American Street Kid in detailing the lives and perils of kids who are trying to get by on their own in extreme poverty. Newcomer Al Rafeea is superb as Zain; Yordanos Shiferaw is sympathetic as an undocumented immigrant who befriends him.

Co-writer (and well-known Lebanese actress) Nadine Labaki's direction is extremely effective. She avoids heavy-handed sentimentality with a bare-knuckles style that allows Al Rafeea's outstanding performance to shine. It also lets viewers feel close to the character and his struggles. The script, when dealing with those struggles, is also quite effective, with horrific turns and shots of humor. But that same script has two major narrative flaws that seriously temper the overall experience of the film: a framing sequence involving Zain bringing a court case against his parents for allowing him to be born and inexplicable storytelling gaps at the end of the film that will leave many viewers frustrated. The former, especially, feels so wrong as to verge on "cute" for a film that, at its most affecting, feels anything but. Capernaum is no picnic, but its performances and direction certainly make it memorable.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Capernaum depicts the way kids are treated in Zain's neighborhood/world. Are they treated like people, as human beings with feelings and potential, or as commodities? Why?

  • How would you compare the violence and peril in Capernaum to what you would see in an action/thriller movie? Which has more impact? Why?

  • Do you consider any of the characters to be role models? Why or why not? What choices do you think you'd make in their position? How does watching their story promote empathy?

  • Did you find the ending satisfying, or were you left with questions that impacted how much you enjoyed watching the film?

Movie details

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