The winner of the Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Capernaum tells the grim story of Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a 12-year-old Lebanese boy born into extreme poverty. When he fails to rescue his younger sister from a terrible fate, he runs away from home, disappearing into the crowded slums of Beirut.
Living off his wits and a kind of brain-stem survival instinct, Zain improvises clever solutions to lethal dilemmas. He eventually finds a friend in Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an African refugee who lives in a crumbling shantytown with her toddler son, Yonas. When Rahil vanishes, Zain becomes the child's fierce guardian, wheeling tiny Yonas through the slums in a bucket strapped to a skateboard.
Capernaum moves with the speed and verve of an adventure movie while also capturing a street-level view of brutal poverty and despair. Lebanese director Nadine Labaki shot the film vérité-style over the course of six months, using handheld cameras, natural light, guerrilla improvisations and nonprofessional actors.
In fact, the real-life stories of the performers parallel events in the film. In one critical scene, refugee mother Rahil is jailed for being undocumented. Three days later, the woman playing Rahil was arrested for the same thing.
The story behind the story of Capernaum is an important part of it. Unfortunately, director Labaki kneecaps her own endeavor with a didactic framing narrative that doesn't really work. You may read elsewhere that this film is about a kid who sues his parents. Ignore that. It's technically accurate, but terribly misleading. Roger Ebert had a perfect line for situations like this: "A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it."
+ Kinetic guerrilla filmmaking; engrossing humanist story
– Unnecessary structural flourishes; a twinge too rhetorical
Directed by Labaki
With Al Rafeea and Shiferaw
Violet Crown, R, 126 min.