Young and scrawny Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is identified as 12 to 13 years of age by authorities based on his teeth. His mother, Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad), has no idea how old he is, another amidst the brood she and Selim (Fadi Kamel Yousef) use to maintain their threadbare existence. After his beloved sister Sahar (Haita 'Cedra' Izzam) died tragically because of sex in her marriage at age 11 to a much older man, Zain took off, fending for himself and the toddler, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), left behind after his immigrant mother Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) was incarcerated in "Capernaum."
Cowriter (with Jihad Hojeily, Michelle Keserwany)/director Nadine Labaki arrived on the scene with 2007's charming Beirut beauty salon movie "Caramel," then stumbled a bit with her Christian Muslim sisterhood movie, 2011's muddled "Where Do We Go Now?" With her third film, winner of the Cannes Grand Jury Prize, Labaki has achieved a whole new level of filmmaking, directing nonprofessional actors and young children with a sure hand. The plight of the powerless - children, the poor, undocumented immigrants - in her home country must be a cause close to her heart because you can feel her passion in every frame of her film.
"Capernaum" is usually described as a film about a 12 year-old boy suing his parents for having been born into misery, but that's really only the film's bookending device (and one which has unfortunate echoes of "Slumdog Millionaire," Zain getting the idea from calling into a talk show from juvenile prison). First we witness the miserable life he is suing over where Zain is a mule for his mother's 'business' of liquidating drugs to be absorbed by clothing which he delivers to his older brother in prison to sell when he isn't performing hard labor for Assad, the man who will be responsible for his sister's death. In their crowded excuse for an apartment, a baby is shackled for adult convenience. Zain does everything to keep Sahar, the one bright spot in his life, safe, but he is overpowered by his father, who gives her hand in marriage to Assad.
Zain takes off and is drawn into an amusement park by a colorfully costumed performer there, an old man. As he makes his way onto an unused ride, one centered around the giant figure of a woman, to expose her breast, he's noticed by the amused Rahil, a cleaner looking out from above. Rahil's circumstances are also dire, an undocumented Ethiopian immigrant hiding her child during working hours, returning to a tin lean-to at night, but her heart is big and Zain becomes a member of this little family, taking care of the adorable Yonas while Rahil goes to work, the two watching cartoons in a mirror angled to catch the reflection of a neighbor's television. Rahil's been saving money to get legal papers, but the man she's been dealing with, Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh), is far from honorable, his eye on her child. When Rahil's swept up in a raid, Zain has no idea what has happened. The 12 year-old battles to survive, trailing Yonas everywhere in a homemade cart. He, too, will turn to Aspro for help.
Labaki, who also plays Zain's attorney, has cast her film with unforgettable faces, young Al Rafeea big-eyed and tousle-haired, Shiferaw stunning to anyone who'd take the time to really look, toddler Bankole all chubby-cheeked innocence. The performances she captures are a testament to her direction, whether working in intimate spaces or crowded street scenes. The production has the documentary feel of the real, yet also allows for artistry, Christopher Aoun's camera shooting through doorways, windows and fabric. His and Labaki's final shot is a stunner.
"Capernaum" is a moving, humanistic work capable of stopping one's heart for all manner of emotions. It's also one of 2018's very best, representing a huge leap forward for Labaki.
Robin gives "Capernaum" a B+.
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