Nothing in director Nadine Labaki’s first two pleasant but tonally inconsistent features, “Caramel” and “Where Do We Go Now?,” approaches the power and skill of “Capernaum,” which represents a major leap forward in all departments. Proving herself an astonishingly accomplished director of non-professional performers as well as a measured storyteller, Labaki draws attention to the plight of children in Beirut’s slums and the Kafka-esque bind of people without ID cards. While this is unquestionably an issue film, it tackles its subject with intelligence and heart.
Prizes are almost a certainty, and not just because juries might be more prone to awarding women directors in this particular moment in history — no wonder Sony Pictures Classics snapped it up in the Cannes market for Stateside distribution, since this is one Lebanese film sure to do significant business at art-house cinemas nationwide.
There’s one liability however, and that’s the title. Merriam-Webster defines “capharnaum” as “a confused jumble,” which sort of describes the pile-up of forces overwhelming the characters and is far more polite than the popular expression beginning with “cluster.” Yet as an archaism that’s also likely to cause confusion in how to pronounce it, the word will have most Anglophone audiences scratching their heads — not a good marketing strategy for an honestly emotional film with broad appeal.
Labaki uses a trial to structure the film, though this isn’t a courtroom drama and those scenes are wisely kept to a minimum. Admittedly the case could probably only exist in cinema: Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), already serving a five-year sentence for stabbing someone, is suing his parents … for giving him life. Approximately 12 years old (even his parents don’t know his exact age, and they never got a birth certificate), this pint-sized James Dean is a sensitive toughie simmering with righteous resentment. One glimpse at his troubled home life and it’s easy to understand why.
Zain lives with parents Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef) and an unspecified number of siblings in an apartment characterized by chaotic squalor, first seen when family members grind prescription opioids into water and wash clothes in the solution in order to pass them off to Zain’s jailbird older brother, who’ll make good money inside selling off the reconstituted drugs. All the kids are put to work hawking stuff on the street or, in Zain’s case, at the convenience store owned by their shady landlord Assadd (Nour el Husseini), who’s got his eye on 11-year-old Sahar (Cedra Izam).
Labaki does a superb job capturing the cacophony of the streets through a mixture of nervous camera movements, shrewd editing, and a multitude of sounds, generally keeping the camera just below or just above the boy’s head. Unable to save Sahar from being sold by their parents to Assadd, Zain runs away, winding up at an amusement park where he’s befriended by Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian cleaning woman illegally in Lebanon without papers. Hiding her adorable toddler Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) at work is problematic, so Zain’s willingness to act as babysitter is serendipitous. Yet when Rahil disappears, Zain has to fend for himself and the child.
While the idea of a kid taking his parents to court for bringing him into such a horrid world sounds like a gimmick, “Capernaum” quickly shifts into unadorned realism, and even in the brief trial scenes Labaki generally avoids the usual grandstanding (the director, first known as an actress, appears briefly as Zain’s attorney). Firmly in the tradition of great guttersnipe dramas, the film pays a considerable amount of attention to milieu, foregrounding the solidarity of children (Zain’s relationship with Sahar is especially well done) as they struggle to survive in an adult-made hell. Lest there be any foolish suggestion that the script doesn’t pass judgment, the parents are unquestionably at fault, and their protestations that they don’t know better because they were raised the same way ring false.
Although some trimming would help, particularly in the last quarter, the overall rhythm supports the emotional build-up, and moments of humor, such as a terrific scene when Rahil is assisted at a notary by two older eccentrics, offer just the right balance with the overall unforced pathos. Five people are credited as working on the script, yet there’s no loss of cohesion, and certain pieces of dialogue, such as at the very end, deliver a genuine punch made more potent by Labaki’s avoidance of falsely dramatic flourishes.
Most of the performers enact roles not so far removed from their own lives — casting director Jennifer Haddad deserves special kudos for bringing together such an exceptional group whose potent personalities and ease before the camera unfailingly hold the screen. Young Al Rafeea is a revelation as the swaggering, foul-mouthed Zain, combining the requisite traits of wounded sensitivity with seasoned resilience that somehow never feels clichéd. His seemingly effortless ability to carry the majority of the film doesn’t diminish the sterling work by the rest of the cast, especially Shiferaw, who is remarkably natural in a difficult role.
Visually, “Capernaum” is notably more sophisticated than Labaki’s previous work, and certainly more gritty. Sequences where the camera hovers around Zain’s height allows for a sense of subjectivity without an easy reliance of p.o.v. shots, and rising cinematographer Christopher Aoun proves his mettle with a number of potent scenes, such as the moment when Zain tries to protect his parents from selling Sahar for a few chickens. Editing is also skilled, and Khaled Mouzanar’s low key music is in perfect harmony with the film’s emotional tenor, accompanying the action without manipulation for most of the way.