This searing, unforgettable drama tells the story of a tough-minded but compassionate street kid trying to survive in a world of grinding poverty, abuse and neglect. Rating: 4 stars out of 4.
The kid is angry. Zain is his name, and at the start of “Capernaum” he’s suing his parents for having brought him into the world.
In court, in handcuffs, in Beirut, he’s charged with stabbing a man. At age 12 or 13 (neither he nor his mother or father are quite sure; he has so many siblings they’ve all lost track of birthdays), having grown up on the squalid streets of the city’s slums, neglected at best, abused at worst by his parents, he tells the judge he wishes he’d never been born.
The kid is a survivor. Resourceful and intelligent, he hasn’t let the dismal circumstances of his daily existence grind him down to inescapable hopelessness.
The kid, despite all that, is caring and protective of those he loves. Early on, the loved one is his young sister, Sahar, who he tries to save from being sold to an older man by their parents. Later on, his dedication for the infant son of a young Ethiopian woman who has befriended him leads him to feed and care for the toddler when the mother goes missing one day. In this case, a human trafficker wants to purchase the baby. Zain refuses to allow it.
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In the midst of squalor, surrounded by adult predators and parents too mired in their own poverty and misery to protect the young and vulnerable, Zain uses his wits and his inner decency to try to do the right thing.
Filmed on location in Beirut’s slums by Lebanese director/co-writer Nadine Labaki, “Capernaum” (the title is based on a French word signifying “chaos”) has an extraordinary, visceral immediacy. That’s because its story is derived from the life experiences of its cast, all of whom had never acted before.
Zain is named for the Syrian immigrant street kid who plays him, Zain Al Rafeea. The are no false notes in his performance. His strength of character and his self-possession shine through as he looks out on the world with the regarding eyes of a person wise beyond his years.
The same goes for Yordanos Shiferaw, the young Eritrean woman who plays the infant’s mother. Like her character, she was an undocumented immigrant when cast, and in fact after playing a scene in which her character is arrested for not having proper identification papers, she was arrested for precisely the same infraction. The filmmakers bailed her out. A serene, loving attitude informs her work.
Zain’s neglectful, abusive parents (played by Kawthar Al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Youssef) are not portrayed as unfeeling monsters. Rather, they’re figures of raging despair, trapped by their impoverished circumstances. “I don’t know better than this. That’s how I was raised. I don’t know anything else,” the father declares when confronted in court with his failures as a parent. It’s a heart-rending cry of bottomless anguish.
Nominated for an Oscar this year in the Foreign Language Film category, “Capernaum” is a searing, unforgettable work.
★★★★ “Capernaum,” with Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife “Treasure” Bankole, Kawthar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Youssef. Directed by Nadine Labaki, from a screenplay by Labaki, Khaled Mouzanar, Jihad Hojeilly and Michelle Keserwany. 119 minutes. Rated R for language and some drug material. In Arabic and Amharic, with English subtitles. Opens Feb. 8 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.