“Capernaum,” Directed by Nadine Labaki, 121 minutes
The hero is a tough, profane, street-smart guy. But he’s not from New York’s Lower East Side as in our usual gangster films. He’s not from Capernaum either. It was an ancient city where Jesus and several of his disciples once lived. Jesus put a curse on it when he left, and that’s probably why the film maker chose the name for this story that takes place in the dusty slums of Beirut.
The tough guy says he might be 12 years old, but he looks 8. He’s already stabbed a bad guy and is serving a five-year prison sentence when he first begins to explain his story. The story is about someone so tough that he bears the worst of betrayals and deprivation. He even makes the horrible lives of refugees and other underground non-persons better than they would have been.
The villains are the tough guy’s parents, the human traffickers, the system of misery, and most of the people he meets. One of the most heart-rending lines in the entire movie is when he expresses his surprise to another child, “Your mother is even worse than mine!”
The star of the movie is the genuine article. He’s a Syrian refugee named Zain Al Rafeea. His resolute little angel face tells most of the story. He and the film are winning international awards.
We had seen one other Nadine Labaki film. “Caramel” was about a beauty salon operator with relationship problems, not about misery and poverty. Both films, though, have a certain inventiveness that makes me think that Labaki is a trailblazer. She’s a young woman. According to the credits, her face is the first one you see in this film, so watch for it if you’re curious.
I think Labaki had some sympathy with movie audiences when she started writing this screenplay. I think she smoothed off some of the edges to make it a happier, or less miserable, viewing experience. The truth about the world’s children is almost certainly worse.