Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum is a brutally honest look at the impoverished existence of twelve-year-old Beirut slum-dweller, Zain (played by the precocious Zain Al Rafeea) as he takes matters into his own hands and sues his neglectful parents for ‘being born’.

Capernaum has been the recipient of many awards worldwide including, significantly, the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2018. The film’s synopsis led me to think about the modern concept of childhood in general. Though the conditions which Zain is fighting in Capernaum are exceptional, it is interesting to note how children across the world, at an increasingly early age, are acting more like adults, to the point where an innocent childhood is perhaps bypassed completely. This fact is, questionably, the fault of technology.

On planes and trains, there is the increasing sight of tablets and other technical paraphernalia being thrust into the hands of children to keep them quiet, some of whom are so young they can barely hold the things.

And, there is a danger, is there not, in letting children have unfiltered access to a wealth of information online which their brains are surely too young to compute? I was recently in earshot of some pre-adolescents who were talking with their parents about the recent Extinction Rebellion protests. This precocious intelligence was indeed scary.

Having said all this, returning to the cinema, it’s not the first time the movies have embraced the idea of children becoming premature adults through circumstance. More than half a century ago, Italian director Vittorio De Sica came to the fore with his Neo-realist masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves (1948), in which a little working-class boy called Bruno (Enzo Staiola) helps his father Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) to find his bicycle after it’s stolen. This, in turn, gave inspiration to French New Wave director, François Truffaut, who a decade later produced his chef d’oeuvre, The 400 Blows (1959), about a young Parisian adolescent, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) who is forced into premature adulthood at the hands of neglectful parents who leave him to fend for himself to the point of making him run away from home completely.

Returning to modern filmmaking, this theme runs again in Sean Baker’s wonderful pseudo-documentary, The Florida Project (2017), about six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who lives with her troubled mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a cramped motel room in the shadow of the lucrative mecca that is Disneyworld. While all these films are sad, they are successful precisely because of the precocity of their child stars.

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Matthew Bruce is a Culture Columnist for Bournbrook Magazine. More of his writing can be found at his blog, ‘For the Love of Celluloid Blog‘.


Photo from Leo Hidalgo on Flikr.