The hero of Capernaum is Zain (Zain Alrafeea), a boy of around 12—nobody, not even his parents, is sure of his actual age—whose tiny, unthreatening frame belies his temperament; his weary, hardened eyes bear the rage and heartbreak of someone six times his age. We meet Zain in a courtroom, where he stands glowering at everyone around him. He’s been on trial before—“because I stabbed a sonofabitch,” he tells the judge matter-of-factly—but this time, he’s there as the plaintiff, suing his parents for giving him life.
As grand and stagy as this premise sounds, Capernaum, which is written and directed by Nadine Labaki and won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, is less epic and existential than rough and realistic. Part survival drama, part social justice plea, the film is a captivating portrait of life—and its impossibility—for refugees lacking means and documentation. To cast the feature, Labaki looked entirely to non-professional actors, seeking out people whose lives closely corresponded to those of her characters. What results is a truly authentic and earnest work that, when viewed as a polemic, could be accused of didacticism. But Labaki’s lens is so patient and empathic, her knack for storytelling so full of soul and temerity, that we’re inclined to follow her lead.
From the courtroom scene, we cut back to Zain’s life before his arrest, when he lived in a small, unruly home in the slums of Beirut alongside his parents and a number of siblings. His days are onerous and rugged, spent selling fruit juice by the roadside, working in a local grocery store, and convincing pharmacists to fill his parents’ forged prescriptions for drugs that will subsequently be smuggled into prisons and sold to inmates. When at dinner one night Zain raises the topic of going to school, his parents reflexively scold him for even having the gall to ask.
The only pleasure in Zain’s life comes from time spent with his younger sister Sahar (Cedra Izam), though he suspects that their friendship, like everything else in his life, is imminently doomed. Of course, he’s right: soon enough, in a horrifying and enraging sequence, Zain’s parents sell Sahar off to be the child bride of a nearby shop owner. It’s then that Zain decides that the only way he can keep on living is to escape.
At this point, the film takes a turn, finding Zain fighting to survive on his own. It’s here that we become aware of Zain’s true street smarts—his scavenger’s eye, his resourceful spirit, his instinctive grasp of whom to trust (and whom not to). He meets a kind, undocumented Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil (Yordanos Shifera) who is struggling to work while raising her infant son Yonas (Treasure Bankole, a baffling natural onscreen). Soon, Rahil becomes the loving parent Zain hasn’t yet known, taking him in to live and help tend to Yonas while she’s out—until, one day, she mysteriously doesn’t come home, leaving Zain to figure out how to care for Yonas alone.
The film’s title, which originally derives from the name of a village in biblical Palestine, translates to something akin to “chaos.” The term is an apt match for Labaki’s story, which in its two-hour run-time confronts a tangled array of social questions and crises. Both Rahil and Zain lack I.D. papers—Rahil because of her immigrant status, Zain because his parents were too poor to register him at birth—and therefore, in the eyes of the Lebanese government, they fail to exist. For Rahil, who periodically sends money back to her family in Ethiopia, the ability to work in Lebanon was supposed to be a blessing. But Nabaki illustrates how, once Rahil became pregnant, societal structures failed her as much as they did Zain, leaving her in the lurch with nowhere to turn.
By the end, Nabaki doesn’t seek to convince us that Zain shouldn’t have existed. The film in fact accomplishes the opposite given that, without Zain’s helpful presence, Yonas probably would have perished. By pairing Zain with a young mother, we’re able to understand both sides of the crisis—how the system is untenable and makes life hopeless for parents and children alike.
For some, the whole ordeal might feel too distressing to swallow, too cruelly incurable to even warrant watching. The irony is that, as modern movie watchers, we’re primed to see appalling things onscreen—violence, brutality, abuse. Capernaum has none of that. Instead, Labaki delivers despair in a much less garish form: the real, lived-in horror of everyday life on the margins, all distilled through the eyes of a boy born into it without volition. We may never be persuaded of Zain’s petition against his parents. But we ache with his pain.