Capernaum, also known as Cafarnaúm or Capharnaüm (Arabic: کفرناحوم, translated onscreen as Chaos), is a 2018 Lebanese drama film directed by Nadine Labaki. The screenplay was written by Labaki, Jihad Hojaily and Michelle Keserwany from a story by Labaki, Hojaily, Keserwany, Georges Khabbaz and Khaled Mouzanar. The film stars Syrian refugee child actor Zain Al Rafeea as Zain El Hajj, a 12-year-old living in the slums of Beirut. The film is told in flashback format, focusing on Zain's life, including his encounter with an Ethiopian immigrant Rahil and her infant son Yonas, and leading up to his attempt to sue his parents for child neglect.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Nadine Labaki|
|Music by||Khaled Mouzanar|
|Edited by||Konstantin Bock|
|Distributed by||Sony Pictures Classics|
|Box office||$68.6 million|
The film debuted at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or, and won the Jury Prize. The film received a 15-minute standing ovation following its premiere at Cannes on 17 May 2018. Sony Pictures Classics, which had previously distributed Labaki's Where Do We Go Now?, bought North American and Latin American distribution rights for the film, while Wild Bunch retained the international rights. It received a wider release on 20 September 2018.
The film received critical acclaim, with particular praise given to Labaki's direction, Al Rafeea's performance and the film's "documentary-like realism". Writing for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott named it as one of the greatest films of 2018. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards, among several other accolades.
Capernaum is the highest-grossing Arabic film, and the highest-grossing Middle-Eastern film of all time, after becoming a sleeper hit at the international box office with over $68 million worldwide, against a production budget of $4 million. Its largest international market is China, where it became a surprise blockbuster with over $53 million.
Zain El Hajj, a 12-year-old from the slums of Beirut, is serving a five-year prison sentence in Roumieh Prison for stabbing someone who he refers to as a "son of a bitch". Neither Zain nor his parents know his exact date of birth as they never received an official birth certificate. Zain is brought before a court, having decided to take civil action against his parents, his mother Souad and his father Selim. When asked by the judge why he wants to sue his parents, Zain answers "Because I was born". Meanwhile, Lebanese authorities process a group of illegal migrant workers, including a young Ethiopian woman named Rahil.
The story then flashes back several months to before Zain was arrested. Zain uses forged prescriptions to purchase tramadol pills from multiple pharmacies. Zain and his sister Sahar later crush the pills into a powder and soak them into clothes, which his mother sells to drug addicts in prison. Zain also works as a delivery boy for Assad, the family's landlord and the owner of a local market. One morning, Zain discovers that Sahar has started her period and helps her to hide the evidence, believing that she will be married to Assad if her parents discover that she has become a woman.
Zain makes plans to escape with Sahar and begin a new life. However, his suspicions are proven correct as Sahar is married to Assad before they can escape. Furious at his parents, Zain runs away and catches a bus, where he meets an elderly man dressed in a Spider-Man costume who calls himself "Cockroach Man". Cockroach Man gets off the bus at an amusement park and Zain follows him, spending the rest of the day at the park. While on the ferris wheel, Zain sees a beautiful sunset and begins to cry. Later, Zain meets Rahil, an Ethiopian migrant worker who is working as a cleaner at the park. She takes pity on Zain and agrees to let him live with her at her tin shack in exchange for Zain babysitting her undocumented infant son Yonas when she is at work.
Rahil's forged migrant documents are due to expire soon and she doesn't have enough money to pay her forger Aspro for new documents. Aspro offers to forge the documents for free if she gives Yonas to him so that Yonas can be adopted. Rahil refuses, despite Aspro's claims that Yonas' undocumented status will mean he can never receive an education or be employed. Rahil's documents expire and she is arrested by Lebanese authorities. After she doesn't return to the apartment, Zain panics. Several days pass, and Zain begins looking after Yonas on his own, claiming that they are brothers, and begins selling tramadol again to earn money.
One day, while at a souq, Zain meets a young girl named Maysoun. Maysoun is a Syrian refugee and claims that Aspro has agreed to send her to Sweden. Zain demands that Aspro send him to Sweden as well, which Aspro agrees to do if Zain gives him Yonas. Zain reluctantly agrees, and Aspro tells him that he will need some form of identification to become a refugee. Zain returns to his parents and demands they give him his identification, to which they laughingly tell him he doesn't have any. Having disowned him for leaving, they kick him out of their house, but not before revealing that Sahar had recently died due to difficulties with her pregnancy. Furious, Zain steals a knife and stabs Assad. He is arrested and sentenced to five years at Roumieh Prison.
While in prison, Zain learns that Souad is pregnant and plans to name the child Sahar. Disgusted by his mother’s lack of remorse for her daughter’s death, he contacts the media and says that he is tired of parents neglecting their children and plans to sue his parents for continuing to have children when they cannot take care of them. Zain also alleges that Aspro is adopting children illegally and mistreating them. Aspro’s house is raided and the children and parents are reunited, including Yonas and Rahil.
Zain’s photo is taken for his ID card. Although finding it difficult at first, he eventually manages to smile.
- Zain Al Rafeea as Zain El Hajj, a 12-year-old boy living in the slums of Beirut
- Yordanos Shiferaw as Rahil (also known as Tigest), an undocumented Ethiopian woman who works as a cleaner at an amusement park
- Boluwatife Treasure Bankole as Yonas, Rahil's undocumented son
- Kawthar Al Haddad as Souad, Zain's mother
- Fadi Kamel Youssef as Selim, Zain's father
- Nour el Husseini as Assad, the owner of a local market and Sahar's husband
- Alaa Chouchnieh as Aspro, Rahil's forger
- Cedra Izam as Sahar, Zain's sister
- Nadine Labaki as Nadine, Zain's lawyer
- Joseph Jimbazian as Mr. Harout (also known as Cockroach Man), an employee at an amusement park
- Farah Hasno as Maysoun, a young Syrian refugee
Screenwriter and director Nadine Labaki described the conception of the film:
At the end of the day, ... children are really paying a very high price for our conflicts, and our wars, and our systems, and our stupid decisions, and governments. I felt the need to talk about the problem, and I was thinking, if those children could talk, or could express themselves, what would they say? What would they tell us, this society that ignores them?
Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee living in the slums of Beirut for eight years, was 12 during production. Al Rafeea's character, Zain, is named for him. Many of the other actors were novices, which Labaki described as necessary because she wanted "a real struggle on that big screen". Al Rafeea contributed to shaping the film's dialogue, drawing on his experiences as a refugee living in a slum.
Although Labaki is an actress, she gave herself only a small role, preferring the novice actors drawing from their experiences. Shooting lasted six months and resulted in a cut 12 hours long; it was subject to edits over two years.
Capernaum holds an 90% approval rating based on reviews by 155 critics on Rotten Tomatoes. On Metacritic., the film has a weighted average score of 75 out of 100 based on reviews from 33 critics, indicating "Generally favorable reviews". The film also received positive reviews from audiences, holding a 90% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 4.5/5 stars on Allocine based on more than 1405 reviews.
Many reviews were highly positive. A. O. Scott of The New York Times ranked it as the ninth greatest film of 2018, writing "naturalism meets melodrama in this harrowing, hectic tale of a lost boy’s adventures in the slums and shantytowns of Beirut...Labaki refuses to lose sight of the exuberance, grit and humor that people hold onto even in moments of the greatest desperation." Variety's Jay Weissberg judged Capernaum to represent a substantial improvement in Labaki's direction, bringing "intelligence and heart" to its issue. The Hollywood Reporter critic Leslie Felperin called it an effective melodrama. On Vulture.com, Emily Yoshida called Zain Al Rafeea "a startling, unforgettable presence". Yoshida also interpreted it as "one of the most forcefully pro-choice films I’ve ever seen", though abortion is not mentioned.
Some reviews were more mixed. Writing for The A.V. Club, A.A. Dowd called the film a "sadness pile that confuses nonstop hardship for drama, begging for our tears at every moment". IndieWire critic David Ehrlich also wrote a mixed review, calling it "an astonishing work of social-realism that’s diluted (and ultimately defeated) by an array of severe miscalculations".
As of 26 May 2019[update], the film has grossed $68,583,867 worldwide, against a production budget of $4 million. It has become the highest-grossing Arabic film, and the highest-grossing Middle-Eastern film of all time, surpassing the $21 million box office record of Labaki's earlier film Where Do We Go Now? (2012).
The film had a limited release in the United States and Canada on 14 December 2018. The film went on to gross $1,661,096 in the United States and Canada, as of 30 May 2019[update]. Outside of the United States and Canada, the film has grossed $66.925 million in international markets, as of 26 May 2019[update].
It released in China on 29 April 2019, and debuted at number two there, behind Avengers: Endgame. Capernaum became a sleeper hit in China, with the help of strong word-of-mouth on Chinese social media (including platforms such as Douban and TikTok). By 5 May 2019, Capernaum had grossed $25.22 million in China, becoming the weekend's second top-grossing film internationally, behind only Avengers: Endgame. By 16 May 2019, the film had crossed CN¥300 million ($44 million) in China, in just over two weeks, becoming a surprise blockbuster at the Chinese box office. As of 10 June 2019[update], the film has grossed $53.92 million in China.
The film was selected as the Lebanese entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards. It made the December shortlist in 2018, before being nominated for the Academy Award in January 2019.
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