Every few years or so a humanist film about neglected street kids in poverty-stricken parts of the world makes an appearance around Oscar season, fully equipped to pluck at your heart strings and have you nervously shuffle in your seat, as you consider your astronomical privilege. Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Garth Davis’s Lion (both coincidentally starring Dev Patel as the ripe version of said child) come to mind, though neither will fully prepare you for the seemingly apocalyptic devastation that Lebanese director, Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum, brings to the table. Let me tell you, the Patel double feature is practically feel-good next to the punishing reality exposed in Capernaum’s brutal tale of neglect and abuse set in the refugee crisis hotbed of the Beirut slums.
The only boy in a bloated family of an unspecified, but unwieldy number of unkept kids, Zain (Zain al-Rafeea) is diminutive in stature but possesses a severe gaze years beyond his years. The story is sparked by the event of a court procession, in which Zain – already serving a sentence in a juvenile detention center – is a plaintiff against his parents. The crime? Giving birth and bringing Zain into a world that knows nothing but punishment, knowing full well their inability to care for him, or any child. The court drama is mostly a narrative tool, and comprises but a sliver of the runtime. The bulk of the film is an extended backstory that puts into perspective his rage, which of course is fully justified.
Though occasional aerial shots step back from the nitty-gritty to show the breadth of the crowded city and the relative meager existence on which the narrative focuses, Labaki keeps the action close to the heels of Zain’s day-to-day. Filmed with naturalistic flair, Capernaum, which translates to “chaos” in French, visually replicates precisely that. With a kinetic, sometimes delirious energy, the camera races and swerves to keep up with our foul-mouthed protagonist as he confronts daily challenges. The onslaught of city stimuli is constant: the blare of cars and motorbikes, the filth and waste scattered in every nook and cranny, food stalls, mini-marts, and the muted energy of rusty carnival rides. It’s an overwhelming world to navigate, but Zain’s negligent parents, who smuggle drugs into prisons as one of their many sketchy side hustles, aren’t concerned with their children’s struggles to manage.
Using a cast composed entirely of non-professional actors, Labaki prefers the innate responses of her performers, even revising the script to encourage improvisation. With impressive range that recalls Brooklyn Prince’s substantial debut performance in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, newcomer Zain al-Rafeea breathes resilience, urgency, and a high voltage punkish attitude into his character of the same name. Often enraged and indignant, Al-Rafeea’s performance is at its most compelling after Zain runs away from home, and finds fleeting stability, if not happiness, with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian immigrant. When a legal dilemma occurs that leaves Rahil’s toddler, Yonas, in the extended and incapable care of Zain, the young boy must work out the material and practical challenges of sustaining himself and his new “brother” with dwindling resources and no income.
The film is tight-fisted about its share of levity, though Zain’s boyish reactions in the context of heavier, mature complications, and the imperfect, albeit functional ways he resolves things provide natural moments of relief. When a shady street merchant offers Zain an opportunity to escape abroad, the boy’s lack of identification papers hints at another, more subtle crisis of the untracked and unaccounted whose existences are illegitimate without documentation. Though the film finds ways to address a number of social and political issues beyond the obvious one of neglected children living in poverty – illegal immigration, human trafficking, domestic violence – Labaki seems to cut the film short. Instead of a productively ambiguous ending, we get a rushed one.
As winner of the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and a likely Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Languages Film, Capernaum provokes empathy as much as it elicits it. It’s certainly bleak, but its refusal to soften the blow with sunny narrative closure is its virtue, or at least what makes it distinct and honest in comparison to so many similar films. That’s not to say this film is devoid of hope. On the contrary, it doles out hope in a realistic way, as a foothold rather than a given.