Capernaum was an ancient city in what is now northern Israel on the sea of Galilee, thought to be the setting for a string of Jesus’ miraculous feats of healing. No such easy fixes come for those who populate the slums of Beirut in this arresting look at life down low from Nadine Labaki.
The film’s unconventionally winning hero is 12 year-old Zain, an impoverished delinquent living among siblings beyond count. Despised by his parents, the youngster soon inevitably finds himself alone on the streets, where he forms a bond with Eritrean refugee Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her heartrendingly adorable baby son Yonas (Boluwtife Treasure Bankole).
Zain is written as a modern-day Lebanese answer to the stock Charles Dickens street urchin – he is mouthy, coarse, worldly-wise beyond his years and shrewdly charming. The work put in by young actor Zain al-Rafeea to realise this immensely complex protagonist is staggeringly advanced, imbuing the film with relevance and edge beyond contemporaries in this wheelhouse.
Furthermore, Labaki should be commended for her ability to corral a vast host of child actors towards performances of thriving personality – a feat of Chris Columbus-circa-Goonies levels.
What elevates Capernaum beyond the miserable excesses of poverty porn, or the sickly sentimentality of Slumdog Millionaire ilk, is this undeniable personality. The streets of Beirut, teeming with grit, filth and danger, burst with colour, noise and sheer life. The abundance of characters Zain encounters – some delightfully strange, some depressingly unsavoury – surge forth with untold stories – distinct and immediately memorable.
Without ever patronising or degrading, Capernaum brims with charm and sheer love for life while still managing to portray life on the breadline in all its rough-and-ready horror and volatility. Labaki has created here a living, breathing wonder that even earns its gloopy fairytale ending.
CAST: Zain al-Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawthar al-Haddad, Fadi Kamel Youssef
DIRECTOR: Nadine Labaki
WRITERS: Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojaily, Michelle Keserwany, Georges Khabbaz, Khaled Mouzanar
SYNOPSIS: A politically-charged fable, featuring mostly non-professional actors, about a child who launches a lawsuit against his parents.