CAPERNAUM (Nadine Labaki). 122 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (January 11). See listing. Rating: NNN
In Capernaum, a compassionate but also manipulative fable about slum life in Beirut, we’re confronted with things we’re much more at ease not knowing about: a toddler held in place in his home by a crude chain tied around his foot starved kids with no access to water eating baby formula out of a can baths in coin car washes.
The list goes on, and I haven’t yet mentioned the child abuse and child marriage that are key to the film’s narrative.
Director Nadine Labaki stacks the cruelties and humiliations in much the same way Danny Boyle did in Slumdog Millionaire. She also tries but has a more difficult time achieving the latter’s fantastical uplift.
Much in the way that Slumdog relied on a game show, Labaki’s film uses a preposterous court case to frame the narrative. The plaintiff, an unregistered child named Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), is in prison for stabbing someone. And he’s suing his parents for giving birth to him despite their miserable conditions, setting him up to fail.
From there, we learn how the streetwise, hardened and yet soulful Zain runs away from home after his parents sell off his 11-year-old sister for some chickens. He finds solace with an Ethiopian refugee named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) who keeps her own undocumented infant child, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), hidden from the world.
The scenes with Zain, Rahil and Yonas are where Labaki’s film is overwhelmingly emotional and truly finds its groove. The cruelties don’t end, the events remain difficult to watch, but the hopeful warmth between these characters gives us a reason to keep going.
This is also where Labaki’s strengths as an actor-turned-director really shine. She gets phenomenal performances from everyone, the infant child included. Not sure if that’s because she knows how to direct babies or because she’s nimbly building compelling moments from whatever the baby gives her.
Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, is a revelation, anchoring the film as a child wise beyond his years in a performance that shows equal maturity.