Published On: Fri, Jan 11th, 2019

Capernaum is a bravura film about a child in a merciless city

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Nadine Labaki's CAPERNAUM ("Chaos") tells the story of Zain (Zain al Rafeea), a Lebanese boy who sues his parents for the "crime" of giving him life. CAPERNAUM follows Zain, a gutsy streetwise child as he flees his negligent parents, survives through his wits on the streets, takes care of Ethiopian refugee Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), being jailed for a crime, and finally, seeks justice in a courtroom. CAPERNAUM was made with a cast of non-professionals playing characters whose lives closely parallel their own. Following her script, Labaki placed her performers in scenes and asked them to react spontaneously with their own words and gestures. When the non-actors's instincts diverged from the written script, Labaki adapted the screenplay to follow them. While steeped in the quiet routines of ordinary people, CAPERNAUM is a film with an expansive palette: without warning it can ignite with emotional intensity, surprise with unexpected tenderness, and inspire with flashes of poetic imagery. Although it is set in the depths of a society's systematic inhumanity, CAPERNAUM is ultimately a hopeful film that stirs the heart as deeply as it cries out for action.

Starring Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Fadi Yousef, Kawsar Al Haddad and Cedra Izam. Directed by Nadine Labaki. Opens Friday at TIFF Bell Lightbox. 120 minutes. 14A

Capernaum is an absolute heartbreaker about children in peril and the plight of undocumented people. This late-arriving 2018 film also makes for the first must-see movie of 2019.

The Grand Jury Prize winner at Cannes 2018 and a likely nominee for Best Foreign Language Feature at the Feb. 24 Oscars, this starkly humane drama represents bravura filmmaking by director/co-writer Nadine Labaki. She’s the Lebanese filmmaker whose Where Do We Go Now? won TIFF’s People’s Choice Award in 2011.

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Featuring a cast of mostly non-professional actors, Capernaum is titled for the biblical town where Jesus Christ is said to have performed miracles. The word also mean “chaos” in some translations of the screenplay, which is in Arabic and Amharic with English subtitles.

The film follows the streetwise and increasingly daring exploits of 12-year-old Zain, played by Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea. With tousled hair and big brown eyes both sad and defiant, he has a face out of Italian neorealism and the heart of a lion.

Bereft of proper parental care and a runaway from intolerable family circumstances, Zain struggles for freedom and life on the streets of Beirut.

He’s watching over a toddler named Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), son of illegal immigrant Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian refugee whom Zain has befriended. Rahil works as a cleaner using ID she purchased illegally, hiding her identity and also her baby as she seeks to avoid deportation to her homeland.

Zain is also trying to protect his younger sister, Sahar (Cedra Izam), one of several siblings crowded into filthy accommodation that could hardly be called “home.” Sahar has been sold by her parents to a man twice her age, in what amounts to marriage slavery, so they can pay off a debt and remain in their apartment.

Zain Al Rafeea, right, and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole in Capernaum.
Zain Al Rafeea, right, and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole in Capernaum.  (1996-98 AccuSoft Inc., All right / Courtesy of TIFF)

Capernaum is bookended by courtroom and prison appearances by Zain, who has been convicted of a violent crime. He’s back in court on the improbable grounds of seeking to sue his drug-peddling parents, Selim and Souad (Fadi Yousef and Kawsar Al Haddad). They’re a pathetic pair, barely able to look after themselves, let alone their brood of children.

Selim and Souad work an elaborate scam whereby tablets of illicitly obtained opioid Tramadol are crushed and then washed into clothing given to prison inmates, who extract the drug for an inside high.

A judge asks Zain why he is so angry at his parents. He answers fiercely: “Because I was born!”

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The rest of the film is an extended backstory, showing us the source of this rage.

It’s a tremendous performance by Zain as he becomes a latter-day Oliver Twist, working every angle to obtain food and shelter for himself and Yonas while also attempting to reunite the child with his mother, who is facing an immigration reckoning.

Labaki keeps the camera up close for much of the film, giving full expression to anxious faces. Occasional drone shots reveal a patchwork cityscape of crowded buildings and distressed lives.

The subtext of Capernaum is the loss of personal identity represented by a lack of government documents. Without proper papers, you are nothing in the eyes of the law.

Zain has no birth certificate, so people have to guess his age, which they judge to be 12.

“He’s lost his baby teeth,” an examining doctor notes. He has lost a lot more than that, as we learn, but Capernaum isn’t entirely bleak, leaving us with a glimmer of hope.

Labaki’s filmmaking intentions are compassionate, not exploitative. She, like Zain, is looking for miracles and common humanity in a city that seems to have lost both.

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Capernaum is a bravura film about a child in a merciless city