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Beirut tale of child abuse and poverty divides Cannes

© Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2018-05-19

There’s a powerful tale of child suffering and defiance buried somewhere in the melodrama of Nadine Labaki’s “Capharnaum”, a film that baffled many critics even as it drew the longest standing ovation of this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

It seems Cannes’ cunning plan to silence the party-poopers has worked. Under new rules designed to preserve filmmakers from scathing critiques (at least until they’ve walked the red carpet), press screenings no longer precede the gala premieres – a change of schedule that has deprived the press of a cherished privilege: that of making or unmaking a film’s fortunes in Cannes. The ploy worked wonders on Thursday night for the premiere of Nadine Labaki’s “Capharnaum”. By the time the furiously tweeting journos had switched their phones on and started punching, they had already been out-tweeted by a larger crowd in the neighbouring gala theatre, where the Lebanese drama fetched the festival’s loudest and longest standing ovation. Once the dust settled and the battle was won, social media had proclaimed “Capharnaum” a shoe-in for the Palme d’Or.

There is certainly a powerful film buried somewhere inside this messy Lebanese melodrama, one of just three competition entries directed by a woman. “Capharnaum” is a heartfelt and earnest portrayal of a young drifter’s struggle for survival in the slums of Beirut. It draws stirring performances from its young actors, whose roles in the film mirror their life stories. Theirs is a deeply moving tale of child abuse, poverty and lost innocence, undercut by the film’s silly premise. The title’s English translation, “Capernaum”, will be of little help to non-French speakers puzzled by the original title – a French word that stands for a “disorderly collection of objects”, or a big mess.

Lebanese director Nadine Labaki and her lead actor Zain Al Rafeea attend the Cannes photocall for "Capharnaum". © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Zain Al Rafeea plays the film’s pint-sized but street-savvy protagonist Zain, whose age (probably 12) is unknown because his parents can’t remember and never got him a birth certificate in the first place. He is suing his parents, ostensibly for bringing him into this ghastly work, though he is really furious at them for selling his beloved little sister to their shady landlord. Zain runs away from his family and befriends an Ethiopian cleaning lady named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who is also without ID. But when she vanishes, he is left to fend for himself in a Beirut slum while also looking after Rahil’s little toddler Yonas, played by the adorable Boluwatife Treasure Bankole.

The film’s strongest, documentary-like scenes portray the squalor and chaos of Zain’s life at home and in the street, making the most of jittery camerawork and cacophonous sound effects. Some viewers will be swept off their feet by the film’s tragic twists and flourishes, and its melodramatic score, while others will wish Labaki had known to do more with less. I was puzzled by the film’s bizarre Malthusian message that suggests the solution lies not in addressing poverty and inequality, but rather in stopping the poor from having kids. Compassion and empathy are reserved for the children and Rahil’s “Mother Courage” character, but there are no redeeming features in Zain’s callous mother and father. As a result, when the parents tell Zain’s bourgeois lawyer (played by Labaki, in a small part) that she has no right to judge them, and her eyes tear up, the guilt feels phony.

There’s an off-screen stabbing at the heart of “Capharnaum”, and plenty more in the following competition entry by French director Yann Gonzalez – though his weapon is a giant dildo with a switchblade. An erotic fantasy thriller set in 1979, “Knife + Heart” stars pop icon and actress Vanessa Paradis as gay-porn producer Anne, whose relationship with her editor Lois (Kate Moran) is falling apart and whose actors are being picked off one by one by a mysterious cruiser in a leather mask. Far from scaring Anne, the sinister murders inspire her next film, titled “Homocidal”, a project she pursues with newfound enthusiasm and creativity while also looking for the killer.

Funny and deliciously trashy, “Knife + Heart” pursues Gonzalez’s fascination for gay erotica and ultra-stylized aesthetics, following his 2013 hit “You And The Night” (which starred Eric Cantona as a famously endowed stud). His latest feature is infused with nostalgia for the period it is set in, resembling a campy – and almost parodic – homage to William Friedkin’s 1980 classic “Cruising” and the heyday of Italian noir. It is a film that looks, feels and sounds great (powered by French group MC83’s throbbing electronic score), but that lacks thematic depth. And the thriller doesn’t quite deliver.

A still from "Knife + Heart", starring Vanessa Paradis. © Ella Herme

Date created : 2018-05-18

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