A street kid fights for survival in Lebanon, in Nadine Labaki’s heart wrenching new film.
Nadine Labaki is a Lebanese writer-director whose three feature films to date display a strong sensitivity to the lives of ordinary working people in Lebanon, their struggles, resilience, and humor. An actress herself, she is especially adept at bringing out the best in actors. Her latest picture, Capernaum, is a giant stride forward, proof that she is now a major filmmaker on the world stage.
In Beirut, a 12-year-old boy named Zain is in prison for stabbing a man in the stomach. Zain is small and undernourished, which makes him look younger than 12. In his eyes we see stubbornness and contempt. How did he get here? The entire film consists of a flashback showing us the sordid and complicated events that led to this. Any assumptions we may have had as the film began will be shattered in the course of the story.
Zain’s family lives in squalor, dependent on the good graces of a landlord who lets them squat for free, but from dubious motives. There are too many kids—Zain is the oldest and apparently the only male. They make money for their parents selling fruit drinks on the street. The mother is also involved in smuggling tramadol, obtained through forged prescriptions, to her relatives in prison who are able to sell it inside. The kids help crush the tramadol tablets into powder, dilute it with water, then soak up this water into clothes that are brought to the inmates, who then wring the drug back out of the fabric. This is just one example of the desperate, often illegal schemes that the poor people in the film employ in order to survive. Always in the background of Capernaum is grinding poverty and desperation, a hard limit to any possibilities for children in the slums.
Zain is played by a 12-year-old newcomer named Zain Al Rafeea. His face is that of a beautiful child hardened by experience into defiance. Much of the film’s humor derives from Zain’s seemingly fearless hurling of insults and profanity at adults who get in his way. It’s a tremendous performance. Labaki’s direction doesn’t seek to inspire pity, but rather to observe the resourcefulness and tenacity that the boy has been forced to develop for his survival.
When we meet him, he has already learned to hate and distrust his parents. The one person he loves is his 11-year-old sister Sahar, and when he sees that her well-being is threatened, his resistance becomes fierce and implacable. Eventually he’s out on the streets, on his own, and a unique set of circumstances teams him up with a young Ethiopian woman named Rahil, an undocumented immigrant with a baby, who needs Zain to watch her kid while she scrapes up a living for the three of them. Rahil is played by another amazing newcomer, Yordanos Shiferaw.
Capernaum is a place mentioned in the New Testament, a town in Galilee that was kind of a home base for Jesus’ mission. I couldn’t see why a film about a street kid in Lebanon would have this title, until I discovered that the Aramaic word for a messy or chaotic place was derived from this town’s name. The double meaning—a reference to religious lore and a word for chaos, undoubtedly has resonance for Labiki’s concerns. The theme of her film, along with a basic reverence for the souls of people living under the worst kinds of hardship, is that adults make a terrible mess of things with their politics and wars and brutal economics, a chaos that engulfs children who have done nothing to deserve the pain and suffering they are forced to experience. And this is symbolized by Zain’s desire to sue his parents for having given birth to him.
Capernaum is heart wrenching and powerful—and one of the reasons for its power is that Labiki never wallows in misery. As awful as things get, she and the remarkable young actor who plays Zain firmly establish in our minds the humanity that endures all, and retains some small spark of courage and compassion.