The title of the Lebanese film Capernaum, Oscar-nominated just this week for best foreign language film, means “chaos," an apt description of the daily tumult surrounding the movie’s main character.
Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is a 12-year-old as tough and resourceful as the children in The Florida Project, but stuck in a less magical urban world, without the outlet of play and escapism.
He has to work for a living as a delivery boy, with side hustles selling knockoff merchandise to motorists. He’s a tough kid, and enormously appealing. He has big, sensitive doe eyes that contrast hilariously with his foul mouth, and he possesses a fierce nobility in stark contrast to the deeply compromised adult world around him.
His parents, for instance, are about to sell his 11-year-old sister to a grown man, who intends to marry her and consummate the union forthwith. Zain’s desperate efforts to prevent this leave him at odds with his family, and on his own. He finds a temporary home as a caregiver (!) to a toddler whose Ethiopian single mother (Yordanos Shiferaw) is trying to hold down a job as a cleaning woman in a restaurant.
Zain gets on-the-job training as a nanny, changing diapers, feeding, lugging the baby through the streets, pulling the little guy along in a washtub with wheels, like something out of Our Gang (Capernaum is a feat of baby wrangling on a par with Raising Arizona). These scenes are often improbably funny and endearing, even in the context of the movie’s horrific social reality (a human trafficker, for instance, offers money for the baby).
The movie is set in and around Beirut (directed by Lebanese actress turned director Nadine Labaki), yet it will be structurally and thematically familiar to anyone who’s read Twain or Steinbeck and responded to their stories of families, children, poverty, and neglect.
At the same time, Capernaum is distinctly modern — like other contemporary movies, it examines the perils of globalization by examining exploited, expendable migrant labor, and it takes the moral measure of one generation by showing how it provides for (or preys upon) the next.
Zain ends up in a youth detention facility, pending a court proceeding that has him squaring off against his parents, who loom in early scenes as villains but who grow more nuanced as the story plays out. Capernaum does not excuse the choices they make, it does change our understanding of the context in which those choices are made.
The acting is fine throughout, and director Labaki (she plays Zain’s lawyer) has a genius for handling untutored performers like Al Rafeea. And while some have accused her of indulging in so-called poverty porn, they’re missing the artistry here. Labaki’s use of color is effective and subtle, with blues and reds carefully deployed, along with a welcome and valuable sense of humor.
Directed by Nadine Labaki. With Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, and Labaki. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 123 minutes.
Parents' guide: R (violence)