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  • Writer's pictureJames Rutherford

'Capernaum': A Harrowing Depiction of Subsistence and Survival on the Streets of Beirut

Movie poster for the Lebanese film Capernaum starring Zain Al Rafeea

“Capernaum” (2018) is a Lebanese drama that opens with 12-year old Syrian refugee Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) appearing in court as the plaintiff against his own parents, who he accuses of neglect in giving him his very life. The storyline then shifts to backward via flashback, tracing Zain’s tumultuous adolescence as the oldest of six children within a one-room apartment, beset by poverty and often abusive treatment by both parents.

When his sister Sahar is sold off to a local merchant as a child bride, Zain is incensed and flees home in order to live on the squalid streets of Beirut. Scraping and clawing to get by, Zain forges an unlikely friendship with Rahil, a Ethiopian migrant worker who provides him with shelter and food in return for his assistance in caring for her young son, Yonas. When Rahil mysteriously disappears, however, Zain is left to care for Yones himself on the unrelenting streets of the city.

A harrowing true-to-life depiction of subsistence and survival, Capernaum is a profound indictment of the collateral damage suffered under the tyranny of military and governmental regimes—all too often crippling the youngest and most at-risk of society. It’s profound, heartbreaking and utterly unforgettable filmmaking—one of the finest examples of international cinema in recent years.


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