***1/2 out of ****
(for strong language, drug material, and peril of children)
Released: Late 2018 limited; February 15, 2019 expands
Runtime: 126 minutes
Directed by: Nadine Labaki
Starring: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw (Rahil), Boluwatife Bankole (Yanos), Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Yousef, Nour El Husseini, Elias Khoury
Life on the streets for a boy and a toddler. A film about something so unnerving – and this raw – is close to a moviemaking miracle.
And, as if that harrowing premise isn’t frightening enough for a viewer, one wonders how director Nadine Labaki achieved such disturbing realism without scarring the boys themselves.
That level of veracity permeates and escalates throughout Capernaum, the Lebanese Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. (It also won the Grand Jury Prize at last summer’s Cannes Film Festival.) If your parental anxieties trigger easily, you may want to sneak into the theater with an emotional support animal (or, at least, a stress ball).
Parental rage is triggered, too, as we see why these two boys are placed into such peril to begin with. Zain, a twelve-year-old (though he looks 10), comes from a poor home where his parents treat their ever-increasing brood of kids as property. This includes the possibility of arranging a marriage for Zain’s barely-pubescent sister.
His rebellion against their treatment sends Zain out into the streets, fending for himself, where he’s befriended by an Ethiopian migrant named Rahil. She lives in a ramshackle urban shed along with her two-year-old son Yanos. Zain initially finds respite and connection with them but, as the illegality of Rahil’s status increasingly becomes a threat, Zain finds that he must also take responsibility for Yanos as well.
This combination of neglect – from callous parents to a disenfranchised refugee – makes for a modern Dickensian tale of injustice and heartbreak. Imagine something akin to the first hour of Lion that doubles-down on cruel twists of fate, cosmic inequities, and endemic poverty. This drives Zain to criminal desperation, out of necessity.
The script’s narrative structure makes it all the more fascinating, as it also includes a courtroom framing device that pits Zain against his parents. Through these early scenes, Labaki actually subverts our initial impression of Zain, allowing us to assume that he’s probably just a hell-bent delinquent.
But as events unfold and circumstances create new perspectives, we see that the lack of nurture rather than intrinsic nature is the culprit. Our hearts go out to Zain and the boy he struggles to care for, deep in the squalor of Lebanese slums.
For as worrisome as it is to see Zain and Yanos in such dire (and dangerous) straits, and often in lengthy sequences that push the limits of traumatic verité, it’s all imbued with such profound empathy (including a nuanced portrayal of the parents) that we instinctively trust Labaki as a filmmaker.
Yes, as young Yanos, Boluwatife Bankole isn’t acting so much as reacting (which is actually scary to contemplate), but ten-year-old Zain Al Rafeea (yes, the film uses his real first name) is a mind-boggling revelation, giving a burdened, bleak, and furious performance that defies the very definition of “performance”.
With Yordanos Shiferaw as Rahil and Kawsar Al Haddad & Fadi Yousef as Zain’s mother and father, the adult ensemble also renders the improbable task of humanizing parents who make the most heartless of choices.
Bottom line: Labaki is not exploiting these kids for the sake of gritty indie verisimilitude; she’s made a stomach-churning parable that advocates for kids like these.
That’s exactly what Capernaum does, in unflinching fashion. It shines a light into a despairing darkness and packs the power to incite change.