“Capernaum,” the winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Lebanese entry for the Oscar for best foreign-language film, opens in a Beirut courtroom where 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), recently given a five-year jail sentence for a stabbing, is suing his parents for having brought him into such a dangerous world. The suit might seem like a sick joke, but the film, which mostly flashes back from this moment, bears out his animus.
Nadine Labaki, who directed and also co-wrote the movie with Jihad Hojeily and Michelle Keserwany, is best known for “Where Do We Go Now?,” a female-centric movie about Christian-Muslim tensions in the Middle East. Also an actress (she appears in a bit role as Zain’s lawyer), she keeps her films focused on performance, which is often the best thing about them. In “Capernaum,” the actors, many of them young and nonprofessional, are once again the centerpiece, but, in visual terms, Labaki is a lot less slick here than usual. The scrappy story seems to have brought out an authenticity in her way of seeing.
Zain, as we learn, comes from a poor family already overburdened with too many children. His parents never bothered to register him at birth, so the state authorities don’t know he exists. When his 11-year-old sister (Haita Izzam), whom he adores and protects, is married off against her will to the landlord’s son, he runs away to a nearby town and scrounges to survive. He meets up with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian refugee and single mother with a 1-year-old baby boy, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). Zain takes refuge with them and cares for the baby while Rahil works days at a menial job at a local carnival. When she is suddenly detained and imprisoned after her undocumented status is discovered, Zain, who doesn’t know what became of her, is left alone to care for the baby.
Because she was afraid that both she and Yonas would be deported if found out, Rahil had been living in a makeshift hut far from prying eyes, rarely venturing outside except to work. Now Zain is caught in the same trap. Remarkably, given his furious instinct for self-preservation, he chooses to also protect the baby, foraging for milk and diapers, even venturing outside with him into an open-air marketplace. The black marketeers there know the score: One of them, who knew Rahil, persists in trying to buy the baby.
Labaki draws her drama from Zain’s energy and from the energy of the streets. The film plays almost semidocumentary style, and the verity makes sense, since it’s clear from what we see, and from the performances, that much of the movie has the tang of closely observed, real-life experience.
Rafeea is an extraordinary actor, not least because he never seems as if he’s acting. (This must be some kind of golden age for remarkable child performers; think also of Brooklynn Prince in “The Florida Project” and Sunny Pawar in “Lion.”)
At least in terms of its subject matter, “Capernaum” will no doubt draw comparisons to “Slumdog Millionaire,” but it’s far less glamorized than that film. Labaki is not without her glosses – she has remarked in an interview that the plight of the street children is even more horrific than what she depicts – and her storytelling can be clunky, but the film is graced with many seemingly peripheral moments that nevertheless hit home. Zain is not above selling opiates to stay alive and keep Yonas in diapers. (And the stabbing that put him in jail, we discover, was justified.) When asked by onlookers why his baby brother is so much darker than he is, his stock answer is that their mother drank a lot of coffee when she was pregnant with him. It’s clear that his attachment to Yonas’s safety is very personal: He is protecting the baby as he would wish to be protected himself.
Zain’s dream, which he took up from Rahil, is to acquire forged papers so he can pose as a Syrian immigrant – in private he practices a Syrian accent – and immigrate to either Turkey or Sweden. Both are places, he is told, where you “only die from natural causes.” The pathos of that sentiment is undercut by Zain’s fortitude. He is too enterprising and quicksilver to feel sorry for himself. He is the hero of this movie, but he is also unavoidably a stand-in for all those other displaced children caught in poverty-stricken straits. He is symbolic without ever losing his ferocious individuality. Grade: B+ (Rated R for language and some drug material. It’s in Arabic with English subtitles.)