“Capernaum” is a strange movie. On the one hand, it is a bleakly authentic film showing the plight of refugees and the poor, with non-professional actors and real-world locations giving the film a documentary-like realism.
On the other hand, Nadine Labaki’s film, which won the Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and is nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film, ties those stunning images to a gimmicky melodramatic plot. Just when I started to feel emotionally invested in these characters, “Capernaum” would make such an obvious lunge for the heartstrings that I instinctively pulled away.
First-time actor Zain Al Rafeea is utterly convincing as Zain, a wise-beyond-his-years 12-year-old Lebanese boy living in squalor with his family in Beirut. Father Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and mother Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef) shower him with epithets and physical abuse, and put all the young kids to work hawking goods in the street.
Zain is resourceful and combative, and has learned to survive in spite of his parents rather than because of them. But under the tough exterior, he has a tenderness and a sense of responsibility for his siblings that his parents lack.
He’s especially protective of his 11-year-old sister Sahar (Cedra Izam). When his parents sell Sahar into marriage to the family’s creepy landlord, Zain has had enough, and runs away into the streets. As he hunts for food and shelter, Labaki’s camera captures the hectic squalor and unexpected beauty of Beirut, lingering on images both horrible (refugees caged like animals) and stirring (a woman dancing along on her balcony late at night). The camera often is positioned at Zain’s point of view, so we’re looking up with wonder and terror at the chaos of a bustling, indifferent city.
He finds a new home, of sorts, when he’s taken under the wing of an Ethiopian woman, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), living illegally in Lebanon in an abandoned amusement park. Rahil has a cute toddler son named Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), and Zain eagerly agrees to stay home and watch Yonas while Rahil works.
At first, it appears that Zain has found the supportive, nurturing family life he has yearned for his whole life. But then, of course, things go wrong again and Zain’s survival skills are tested again. The screenplay piles misery upon misery onto the lives of Zain and those closest to him, and any sense of hope feels fleeting.
All of this is presented in flashback. In the present day, Zain is in prison for stabbing someone (we don’t know who until the end of the film), and has gone to court to sue his parents for the crime of giving birth to him into such hopeless circumstances. It’s an awkward framing device that undercuts the drama of Zain’s journey, as every few minutes the film stops so the characters can explain to a judge what they were thinking at the time.
“Capernaum” follows in the footsteps of Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” Steven Soderbergh’s “King of the Hill” and other films in which the hero is an abandoned boy trying to survive in a cruel world of adults. But those films kept us locked into the boy’s point of view. The melodramatic plot turns and maudlin courtroom scenes of “Capernaum” keep reminding us that, as heartbreaking as things get, we’re just watching a movie.