Combustible Celluloid
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With: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Yousef, Haita 'Cedra' Izzam, Alaa Chouchnieh, Nadine Labaki, Elias Khoury, Nour El Husseini, Joseph Jimbazian, Samira Chalhoub, Farah Hasno
Written by: Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Michelle Keserwany, Georges Khabbaz, Khaled Mouzanar
Directed by: Nadine Labaki
MPAA Rating: R for language and some drug material
Language: Arabic, Amharic, with English subtitles
Running Time: 126
Date: 12/14/2018

Capernaum (2018)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Squalor Streets

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I saw lots of fine foreign language films in 2018, but the Academy saw fit to nominate this relentlessly hopeless gut-punch of a movie instead. Nadine Labaki's Capernaum begins as a young boy, Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), attempts to sue his parents for giving birth to him. Interesting. But then the film then flashes back to his entire miserable existence, viewed through wobbling hand-held camerawork to emphasize how realistic the rottenness is. He tries to protect his older sister, who has just begun menstruating, from being handed over to a creepy shop merchant to become his plaything, but he fails. The sister later dies. He then runs away, finds a brief respite looking after the toddler of an African refugee, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), until Rahil leaves one day and never returns (she was arrested). Zain must then look after the little boy, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) himself. He scrounges in the streets, sells drugs, and does whatever he can, but all ends in atrocity and sadness anyway. Aside from getting awards, movies like this make me wonder: why would anyone want to either make this, or sit through it? (Why put the kids through making it?) It's unflinching, and it has the courage to face things that are really going on in the world, but where's the art? Where's the filmmaker's personality? What's it here for? Weirdly, another of this year's nominees, Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters takes on a similar subject but does so with a great deal more grace and poetry; it's a far more watchable film. Capernaum doesn't even offer the hope that someone who sees it will actually do anything to help; it's that pessimistic. It leaves you feeling wrung-out, guilty, and doomed.

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