At the beginning of Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s Cannes-jury-winning import Capernaum, a 12-year-old boy sits behind an oversize table in an imposing courtroom. He’s the plaintiff, and sitting across the aisle are his teary-eyed parents. The judge asks why he is suing them. His response: for being born. Obviously, it’s a ludicrous and frivolous charge. But over the next two hours, as the heartbreaking film flashes back to the boy’s harrowing and horrifying childhood, you start to think that he might just have a case.
This is not an easy movie by any stretch of the imagination. The boy at the center of the film, Zain (played with vulnerable street smarts by Zain al Rafeea), is neglected and forced to fend for himself by the very people who are supposed to love and nurture him. But Labaki’s film has an unflinching naturalism that makes you root for him in the way Francois Truffaut made you root for the young Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows. He’s one of thousands of similarly dirty-faced urchins getting by on the overcrowded, chaotic streets of Beirut, forced to grow up too fast and to see the cruelties of the world too soon.
Forced into working for a creepy local shopkeeper (Nour el Husseini) to help support his family, Zain is a survivor and a bit of a schemer, stealing food to bring home to his parents and countless siblings. When Zain’s younger sister, Sahar (Cedra Izam), is married off to that same creep, Zain does what he can to save her. But it’s no use. So he runs away, and your heart aches for him to get as far away as his little feet can take him. Taking refuge in a run-down amusement park, Zain meets an illegal immigrant from Ethiopia named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who gives him a place to stay. He babysits her newborn baby, while she tries to scrape together enough money to purchase a phony permit to stay in the country and keep working as a cleaning woman. Like Zain, she finds that even the people who claim to want to help her have ulterior motives.
There are some brief moments of levity in Capernaum, particularly between Zain and Rahil’s child (the movie would be unbearably bleak without them). But for all of its brutal, raw force, Labaki’s excellent film is tough sledding — a sucker punch that lands with the emotional force of Dickens relocated to the slums of the modern-day Middle East. It leaves a bruise. B+
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