Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Mystery Unwrapped: Need a break from holiday banality? “Capernaum” is for you.

As we get closer and closer to the holidays, it becomes harder and harder for the general audience to sit through films with heavier subjects.

The holidays are a time for happy-go-lucky romantic comedies and blockbusters that will lift the audience’s spirits. But some films defy those limitations. Their true purpose is to tell a story, and sometimes that story won’t be happy or inspirational.

“Capernaum” is one such film. Director Nadine Labaki brings us a thought-provoking, visceral look into familial neglect (happy holidays!), and it’s getting some Oscar buzz for the foreign film category.

Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is 12. We think. We’re not entirely sure because his parents don’t know his date of birth or have any birth records for him. Zain is maybe 12, lives in Lebanon, and is in court. Not for the violent crime he committed, because there is not any question of that. This trial is to sue his parents. Why? “Because I was born,” he says. He has a strong case for neglect and does not want his parents to continue having children.

What begins to unfold onscreen is Zain’s life leading up to the trial, interspersed with tidbits from the case against his parents. We meet his parents (Kawsar Al Haddad and Fadi Yousef) and his sister, Sahar (Haifa “Cedra” Izzam), to whom he is very close and of whom he is very protective. We meet Tigest (also called Rahil, played by Yordanos Shiferaw), the Ethiopian immigrant that Zain meets after he runs away from home, before his crime, and her toddling, adorable son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). Every character that Zain meets throughout the film adds another gritty layer to his experience, whether in his home life or out on the streets.

While what we are watching would not categorically fall into the “mystery” genre, with a detective finding clues and solving a crime, it is certainly shrouded in mystery. The slow-burning plot gives us clues about the horrors of Zain’s upbringing only after we see their context in his life on the streets. We know, for example, that Zain has committed a crime, but we don’t know what that is until we are well into the plot. And, even then, the characters hem and haw about it, giving basic information and no more.

This reviewer’s goal is honestly to give you as little of the plot as possible, for that is what makes the film so gripping. It is a journey of discovery, of desperation, of a little boy who is forced to skip over childhood and be mature beyond his years.

Al Rafeea will draw you in with his performance. It is a daunting role for such a young actor, and yet he sets the mood for the entire piece, playing the father, the son, the protector, where others fail to fill these roles throughout the story. Such a serious, weary face on such a young boy. Shiferaw will break your heart with her supporting performance, though “supporting” seems unjust, given the portrayal she gives for her story.

As difficult as the subject matter is—most people prefer their family drama to be wrapped up with a big, red bow by the end of the film during the holiday season—“Capernaum” should not be overlooked this holiday season.

“Capernaum” plays this month at Midtown Cinema, 250 Reily St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit


December Events
At Midtown Cinema

National Theatre Live presents
“The Madness of George III”
Dec. 9, 3 p.m.

Down in Front!
Comedy improv panel riffs on
double Santa feature
Dec. 14
8 p.m., “Santa Claus” (1959)
9:30 p.m., “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” (1964)

“It’s a Wonderful Life”
Dec. 20, 24 & 25, 7 p.m.
Dec. 22, 12:30 p.m.

3rd in the Burg $3 Movie
“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”
Dec. 21, 9:30 p.m.

Moviate presents
“Holly Jolly Film Shorts”: 16mm rare holiday movies
Vintage fun for the whole family
Dec. 23 at 7 p.m., $5

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