I recently went to see Capernaum at Picturehouse Central. When we left, my friend commented, “that was heavy.” And it was, heavy in a way that felt difficult to process immediately, beyond that familiar discomfort of watching a film like this as entertainment, as people around us ate popcorn and checked their phones.
During the opening scenes we see children running through narrow alleyways playing with pretend guns, an echo of many other similar opening scenes, including Nabil Ayouch’s Horses of God (2012), which also has a cast of largely non-actors playing their own lives, young people growing up in a slum, struggling against insurmountable circumstances they had no hand in creating. There are the same scenes of chaotic hopelessness here, and so the same concerns about how far a film like this can escape a touristic tour through the suffering of the poor and the paperless. In this case however, there is a more individual focus, drawing the audience into the claustrophobic world of the slum through the eyes of the child protagonist, Zain, which gives it more of an Oliver Twist feel, but also demands that you do more than feel sorry for the character.
There has been some commentary on the anti-natality of this film, given the symbolic trial scene shown in the trailer in which Zain attempts to sue his parents for giving him life. This somewhat contrived frame however falls away quickly and is almost forgotten as we follow Zain’s efforts to survive the harsh conditions that are all he has known, until he eventually flees his abusive parents.
Zain’s parents were perhaps the most confusing aspect of this film — they are given scenes where they are keen to justify their actions and express a genuine love for their children, an avenue that could perhaps have been explored in more complex ways, if not for the repeated lingering scenes of their foul-mouthed and sometimes inexplicable violence towards their children, used as a driver for the action.
The primary emotion Zain expresses throughout the film is a contradictory angry stoicism, both determined to survive and enraged at the injustice of life, in particular following his developing relationship with Rahil and Yonas, and Rahil’s disappearance. But that is not to say the film is entirely soul-crushing. If we take the anti-natality of the trial scenes at face value, this bleak vision of lives not worth living is at least complicated by the scenes which linger on the bond between mother and child, and on the love that can be created in found families if not in biological ones. It is the growing bond between the three that is at the heart of this film.
Sometimes it is too easy to speak of how cinema as “the empathy machine” humanises the dehumanised, the lives that are less valued and less grievable. That has always been an uncomfortable formulation. Watching this film is a reminder that we need rather to humanise ourselves, to confront our own desensitisation.