Rebel without a chance
Compassion and skill of director bring child in a merciless city to life ★★★★
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. 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 neo-realism 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.
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).
Zain Al Rafeea, left, and Cedra Izam play brother and sister in Capernaum, a likely Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Feature.
Zain Al Rafeea, right, and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole in Capernaum, the Grand Jury Prize winner at Cannes 2018.