One of the Best Ten Films of 2018 (see list), “Capernaum” is a rare accomplishment that generates the kind of excitement I felt when first encountering the films of Italian realism. “Capernaum,” sublimely directed by Nadine Labaki, takes us through the poverty-stricken streets of Beirut and focuses on the survival efforts of a resourceful boy who may be about 12 (he can’t be sure of his birth date).
Labaki has found a remarkable protagonist In Zain al Rafeea, cast a boy also named Zain. We see him early on after being jailed and brought to court where he wants to sue his parents for the “crime” of bringing him into the world. They should be forbidden to have other children, he insists. His feeling so forlorn is heart-wrenching, and yet through his actions we see his resourcefulness and fighting spirit.
Zain is wracked with fury at the decision of his parents, mired in poverty, to sell his 11-year-old sister, Zahar, into marriage with the son of their landlord. Zain desperately wants to halt the deal. When he runs away from home and takes to the streets, he encounters Rahil, an African refugee, who is in Lebanon illegally and struggling to get by. Played by Yordanos Shiferaw, she is a needy mother of a young child. The altruism in Zain emerges when he cares for the youngster while the mother goes off to her menial work.
Circumstances bring complications, but we see how kind and smart Zain is as he navigates life. The naturalistic performance that the director evokes from actor Zain zeroes in on our emotions. How can one ever forget this boy who symbolizes the agony gripping so many others?
Director Labaki’s casting ability results in life-like performances. Zain’s parents are played by Kawthar al Haddad (the mother) and Fadi Kamel Youssef (the father), with the father controlling and very abusive. Zain emerges as the principled one, especially in connection with his devotion to his sister targeted for a forced marriage.
The film s rich in the atmosphere of street life, and as we watch Zain in charge of Rahil’s son, the sight of the two together is particularly poignant.
When I have described the film to a few acquaintances, I received responses that the film sounded too depressing to experience. Yes, there is sadness, but there is also the rare exhilaration one can get from encountering a cinematic work of art in the best traditions of socially aware filmmaking. “Capernaum” is a must for those who value such achievements. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Reviewed December 14, 2018.