Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum opens in a courtroom, but with a plaintiff delivering a charge the likes of which you’ve probably never heard before. Twelve-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee and first-time actor living in Lebanon at the time of filming) declares that he is suing his parents Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef) “for giving me life.” This may sound like a ridiculous setup, but you need to trust Labaki, who not only makes the premise work, but uses it to create one of the more memorable films you’re likely to see this year.
Zain lives in a cramped apartment with a sprawling family including his sister Sahar (Cedra Izam), younger by one year. Chaos, which is one translation of the title, is an accurate description his family’s life. Their main income comes from a scam in which they supply an older brother, currently in jail, with clothing soaked in a solution of crushed opioid pills and water; inside the jail, he soaks the clothes to extract the drug, which he then sells. I’m not sure which is more disgusting—the thought of voluntarily ingesting drugs that have been passed through someone else’s clothing, or the fact that Souad and Selim involve their young children in drug smuggling. But in fairness, both are acts born of desperation based on a lack of better alternatives, and over the course of Capernaum you will come to understand such behavior, even if you don’t condone it.
Life may not be great for Zain, who doesn’t even know his own age (in the courtroom, a doctor estimates it based on the state of his teeth) and is serving a prison sentence of his own (for stabbing someone). Still, he has several huge advantages over his sisters, including the fact that he can move freely about the city and that no one is going to sell him in marriage to some creepy old man. When a much older shopkeeper (Nour el Husseini), who is also the family’s landlord, offers to buy Sahar in return for some food, her parents are only too willing to set aside any concerns they might have had about their daughter’s happiness (or even her survival).
That’s the last straw for Zain, who leaves home to find his way on the streets of Beirut. He teams up with an Ethiopian woman (Yordanos Shiferaw) who lacks residence papers but who has found someone willing to forge them, and ultimately plans to pay a smuggler to get her into a northern European country. When she doesn’t return home one day, Zain must step up and assume responsibility for her infant son Yonas, giving him a chance to demonstrate that, although he never received the care every child deserves, he is more than capable of assuming a parental role for a child in need. The plot of Capernaum can get a bit involved, but the performances from the non-professional cast are captivating, and Al Rafeea in particular more than carries the day. Be forewarned, however, that this is no Slumdog Millionaire, and Labaki’s portrayal of the lives of Beirut’s poor can be truly disturbing.
Capernaum has been showered with awards, including an Oscar nomination and the Jury Prize at Cannes; it also received a 15-minute standing ovation at that festival. It richly deserves all the praise it has received and more, both for its unusual blend of narrative and documentary-like elements, and for the child’s-eye view it provides of what it’s like to live in abject poverty with no legal way out and scant reason to think that things will ever be any better. | Sarah Boslaugh